Is It Flat? Illusion, Reality, and the Haas Mural

August 6, 2019

By Rachel Randles

The westward facing trompe l’oeil mural that overlooks the OHS plaza depicts thirty-foot-high likenesses of Lewis and Clark Expedition members Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; Sacagawea and her infant child, Baptiste; Clark’s personal slave, York; and Lewis’s Newfoundland, Seaman.

On a nearly daily basis, tourists and locals stand on the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) plaza, gazing up at the historic Sovereign Hotel while considering the vast, painted façade that faces west toward the South Park Blocks. The trompe l’oeil (pronounced “tromp la” or “tromp loi”) mural, created by artist Richard Haas, depicts thirty-foot-high likenesses of Lewis and Clark Expedition members. Painted on the westward facing wall are: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; Sacagawea and her infant child, Baptiste; Clark’s personal slave, York; and Lewis’s Newfoundland, Seaman. While the scale in itself is enough to stop you in your tracks, the clever technique used to paint the mural leads many to ask our Visitor Services staff — “is that painting really flat?”

Westward facing Haas Mural, photo by Bob Setterberg

Southern facing Haas Mural, photo by Bob Setterberg

These photographs, taken by OHS volunteer docent Bob Setterberg, show the westward and southern facing murals painted by artist Richard Haas. The Sovereign building’s south mural, visible from SW Broadway and Jefferson streets, bears a trompe l’oeil mural depicting scenes from the Oregon Trail and Astor fur trade. On the right, a tribute to the Pacific Northwest’s Native peoples includes rock carvings and an Indian village. Below are European and American fur traders who contacted these first inhabitants during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Newcomers descend from the left with their oxen and covered wagons, representing the mid nineteenth century overland migration to the Oregon Country.

Born in Spring Green, Wisconsin, in 1936, Haas attributes his career as an artist to early experiences at Taliesin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, studio, and school. There, he interacted with students in the studio while working as an assistant stonemason. Haas first employed the trompe l’oiel (or trick of the eye) in 1974, replicating the front elevation of a cast-iron building in Manhattan. The Washington Post described Haas’s use of the technique — once popular among ancient Greek and Roman muralists and during the European Renaissance — as “a curious border zone between architecture and art, building and decoration.” Arguably, Haas is the most notable twentieth century painter in this style, with murals adorning buildings across the United States and in Europe.

 

What OHS staff often refer to as the “Haas Murals” grace the western and southern facing exterior walls of the historic Sovereign Hotel, built in 1923 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. OHS purchased the Sovereign in 1982, nearly twenty years after moving to its current location on SW Park Avenue between SW Madison and Jefferson streets. In 1989, then executive director Thomas Vaughan commissioned the murals that continue to captivate passersby. 

Sovereign Hotel, c. 1984. Photos by George Champlin, org. lot 292

Sovereign Hotel, c. 1984. Photos by George Champlin, org. lot 292

Prior to Haas’s murals, the Sovereign’s westward and southern facing walls were white.

Designing murals of this scale was no small feat. Haas and his assistants rendered scale drawings of the murals in their studio on three-dimensional models called maquettes. The 14,000 square foot painting took three months to paint. Portland artists Cynthia Martin, Pattison Skoshe, Steve Baratta, Anne Elizabeth Kelley, along with Larry Zink of New Orleans and Harley Bartlett of Rhode Island, executed the murals. They transferred Haas’s scale drawings (drawn at 1/24 of the mural’s size) to the massive walls using a silica-based paint that is resistant to weather. Not only did they paint the historic scenes, they also created the brick and stonework images, which look so authentic they are sometimes confused for the real masonry.

In 2014, OHS sold the Sovereign Hotel building but retained ownership of the mural. The sale agreement stipulated that restoration would take place following needed building repairs, and the new owners, 1922 Sovereign LLC, in partnership with OHS and Jessica Engeman, Historic Preservation Specialist from Venerable Group, Inc., selected classically trained painter, sculptor, and muralist Dan Cohen to handle the mural restoration.

Dan Cohen and his team at work repainting the westward facing mural on the Sovereign building, 2016. Photo by Rachel Randles

Dan Cohen and his team at work repainting the westward facing mural on the Sovereign building, 2016. Photo by Rachel Randles

Following critical repairs to the Sovereign, OHS selected artist Dan Cohen to restore the Haas Murals. In 2016, Dan Cohen and his team painted an exact replica of Haas’s original murals. This photo shows the painters in progress on the westward facing mural that overlooks the OHS plaza. Photos courtesy Rachel Randles.

After adorning the Sovereign for nearly three decades, painters whitewashed the Sovereign’s façade in 2016. Cohen and his team completely repainted the murals that summer, revealing an uncanny replica of the original. Cohen consulted closely with Haas throughout the restoration process, and both artists signed the “new” mural, officially re-dedicated at the OHS Annual Meeting of the Membership on May 20, 2017.

Following the renovation, Diggable Monkey produced a 20-minute video chronicling the Sovereign renovation project. The film, Restoring Sovereign, examines the building's functional nuances and the challenges of its historic preservation, including the Richard Haas trompe l'oeil mural. Produced and directed by Kevin Balmer, founder of Diggable Monkey Video Productions.

So, yes, the mural is indeed flat, but its story is far from two-dimensional. OHS is proud of this unique piece of public art and looks forward to seeing the surprise, wonder, and admiration it evokes for years to come.

For further reading about Lewis and Clark in Oregon art, read Jeffry Uecker's article in the Winter 2002 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Picturing the Corps of Discovery: The Lewis and Clark Expedition in Oregon Art, now available to read for free online. 

Sources:

David W. Dunlap, “Saving Richard Haas's SoHo Mural, Chipped Away by Time and Vandals,” New York Times, November 11, 2015.

Benjamin Forgey, “Buildings that Aren'tWashington Post, May 22, 1982.

Richard Engeman, “Oregon Historical Society,” The Oregon Encyclopedia (accessed August 1, 2019).

Roberta Badger, “Haas Mural Interpretation,” research file held at the OHS Research Library, Portland, Oregon.

Categories: Behind the ScenesAudience(s): Visitors, Researchers

The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of OHS. The Oregon Historical Society does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.