Murals from 1940s ‘haunt’ old post office

Free programs to learn about murals, including “Mail to Cape Lookout” are scheduled for 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 8 at the Beaufort Visitors Information Center at 701 Front St. (Contributed photo)

There is a “hidden” art gallery in Beaufort just waiting to be discovered.

Join Cape Lookout National Seashore Ranger Kathleen O’Grady to discover the history and mysteries of the four old Beaufort post office murals and the life of Simka Simkhovitch, the Russian emigrant and U.S. citizen who created them.

Free programs are scheduled for 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 8 at the Beaufort Visitors Information Center at 701 Front St.

“One really needs to see these magnificent paintings in person to fully appreciate the artistry involved in Simkhovitch’s work,” Ms. O’Grady said. “Photographs simply do not do them justice.”

During the Great Depression, the federal government selected Beaufort as one of the towns to receive New Deal art projects and named Russian emigrant Mr. Simkhovitvch for the task.

Mr. Simkhovitch was one of 40 artists who created work for federal buildings in North Carolina as part of the New Deal art program.

He was born in Petrograd, Russia, in 1893, studied art in Odessa and was recommended to the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg.

Before he could begin his studies, however, he performed military service.

As a result of his art skills, he came to New York in 1924 to illustrate some Soviet textbooks. He immediately applied for U.S. citizenship, which he received in 1930. He met and married a New England woman and settled in Connecticut, where he created commercial art and by painting portraits for $1,000 each. Mr. Simkhovitch died in Milford, Conn., Feb. 25, 1949.

In 1940, Mr. Simkhovitch installed four murals at the Beaufort post office at the corner of Pollock and Front streets.

The red brick building, which features a side-gabled roof and a lanterned cupola decorating the top, was built in 1937 and remained in operation as a post office until 2010, when a new, free-standing post office was built about a mile northeast on Live Oak Street.

The old building now houses town of Beaufort government offices, as well as the Beaufort Visitors Information Center for Cape Lookout National Seashore.

The individual brass post office boxes still line the interior of the ground floor.

At one time, Carteret County Public Library Director Susan Simpson pursued the possibility of having the four murals hung in the library’s home at 1702 Live Oak St., as the library had outgrown the space at the Turner Street location.

However, the town Beaufort eventually acquired the post office building, which is where the murals remain on display to this day. The large oil paintings range from 10 to 12 feet.

The four murals

Mr. Simkhovitch chose four subjects which reflect the history and nature of Beaufort and Carteret County. They are titled:

•    “Mail to Cape Lookout”

•    “Crissy Wright”

•    “Sand Ponies”

•    “Goose Decoys” 


The schooner Crissie Wright wrecked during a violent storm off Shackleford Banks Jan. 11, 1886. All but one of the crew perished. Three of the mariners are buried in a common grave in the Old Burying Grounds on Ann Street in Beaufort.

Mr. Simkhovitch depicts the blazing bonfires built on shore to signal the doomed crew while helpless rescuers looked on in despair.

Mr. Simkhovitch apparently misspelled “Crissie” as “Crissy” on the mural.

“Mail to Cape Lookout” depicts the 163-foot-tall lighthouse, which was built in 1859 and is still operational today.

Its signal is visible for 18 miles, and before the construction of the many bridges and roads linking Beaufort and points east, the mail boat delivered mail and passengers to rural eastern Carteret County until 1957.

The mural shows the mail boat loaded with mail and supplies on route to the lighthouse during rough and stormy seas, underscoring the hardships the ship’s crew and lighthouse keeper had to endure.

“Sand Ponies” captures the wild “banker” ponies that have roamed Shackleford Banks for more than 400 years. They are descended from Spanish horses and are a national treasure.

The fourth mural, “Goose Decoys,” depicts the importance of the water and maritime life to the local economy and includes fishing nets drying in the background. Canadian geese served as live decoys during the annual duck hunting season.

In the late 1990s, conservator Elisabeth Speight of Philadelphia, Pa., set about to restore the four Beaufort murals.

The daughter of Francis Speight, who prepared a mural for the Gastonia post office, Ms. Speight was a 1972 graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She found the Beaufort murals to be in poor condition, especially the “Crissy Wright.”

According to Anita Price Davis’ New Deal Art in North Carolina: The Murals, Sculptures, Reliefs, Paintings, Oils and Frescoes and Their Creators, “Water had damaged the panel when it had been on display outdoors. Three of the panels still adhered to the walls with a white lead adhesive and were therefore difficult to remove from the walls. Elisabeth discussed the removal of the lead with officers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before she began the restoration. Because she would be chipping (not sanding) the lead adhesive from the back of the paintings, the EPA deemed the process to be safe for her and for the environment.”

Those planning to enjoy holiday activities at the Beaufort Historic Site on Turner Street this fall should take a small detour to visit Mr. Simkhovitch’s murals.

It’s like taking a step back in time, and one can almost imagine the artist working from scaffolding to create these murals.

For more information, call 252-728-2250, ext. 8920, or visit nps.gov/calo.

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