For 80 years, the public art on display inside the building on the corner of Front and Pollock streets in Beaufort has remained relatively overlooked and undetected by visitors to this seaside town.
Within the lobby of the Beaufort Town Hall are four jumbo-sized murals depicting Carteret County’s rich maritime heritage. They were hung in 1940 and painted by Simka Simkhovitch.
He was a famous artist who had moved to America from Russia in 1924 at age 39 and became a U.S. citizen. His painting style was described as “contemporary impressionism.” Go see for yourself.
Town Hall formerly was Beaufort’s post office. As such, the building was “eligible” for one of the “art projects” associated with the “New Deal,” which were rolled out under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Within the U.S. Treasury, a “Section of Fine Arts” was created in 1938. Its purpose was “to secure for the government the best art” that the “country is capable of producing...for the decoration of federally owned structures and hundreds of post offices around the country.”
The project was also viewed “as a relief measure to sustain about 10,000 artists and artisans” by providing them with work.
Wiley Higgins Taylor Sr. became Beaufort’s postmaster in 1933. He was a “mover and shaker” within the town. Soon, work began to construct an expansive new post office building to replace the small one that existed in the downtown district.
Taylor asked for some of that New Deal artwork money to come to Beaufort, so he could hang original paintings on the walls of his new post office building. It had just opened in 1937. Uncle Sam said “yes.”
Taylor wanted Simkhovitch. The postmaster offered him $1,900 to take the job. Deal.
The government required each artist to visit the host community and select a theme “appropriate to the tastes and interests of the public who will use that building.”
Wiley Taylor was born on a farm in Bettie and worked on the mailboat that traveled from Beaufort to Ocracoke. Taylor’s Down East Carteret County roots are clearly reflected in Simkhovitch’s four paintings.
His main mural is a scene from the rescue efforts associated with wreck of the Crissie Wright. The three-masted schooner ran ashore off Shackleford near Wade Shore on a bitterly cold night – Jan. 11, 1886.
Whaling crews prepared to go out, but mountainous waves prevented them from launching their boats.
“They built a large fire on shore to signal the Crissie Wright’s crew of six that they would come to the rescue when nature so obliged,” said Carteret County historian Rodney Kemp.
Two men were swept overboard and lost at sea. The next day, the rescuers attempted to save the other four. All but one perished. The crew is memorialized with a marker in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground.
“The Crissie Wright is historically significant, because the publicity from this tragic event helped encourage the building of U.S. Life-Saving Stations in Carteret County, beginning in 1888,” Kemp said.
A second Simkhovitch mural shows the mailboat, the Orville G, approaching the diamond-studded Cape Lookout Lighthouse under a threatening sky. The mailboat also carried freight and passengers, and was a way of life well into the 1950s.
Viewing the painting, one can sense the rocking sensation of the wooden boat, straining to trudge through rough waves to reach the lighthouse, which appears to be an island at sea.
About 35 post offices in North Carolina were included in the “New Deal” paintings project, but Beaufort may be the only place that got four paintings. How do we leverage that?