Guest author Sally Stokes looks at the home movies artist Hildreth Meière made of murals at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair.
For the past several years, I have been studying the religious architecture of Clarence S. Stein (1882—1975). One of the major undertakings of the firm Kohn, Butler and Stein was Temple Emanu-El (1929), on East Sixty-fifth Street in New York City. The temple’s sanctuary features breathtaking mosaics by the art deco muralist Hildreth Meière. At the time I first visited Temple Emanu-El, in 2012, I did know that Meière was responsible for at least some of the murals applied in 1939 to the cloister walls of the New York World’s Fair’s Temple of Religion, a building designed by Stein, with Alfred Easton Poor and Oliver Reagan; but I had neither seen any of her work nor known much about her before that 2012 visit.
Meière, born in Flushing, New York, was one of few women who were well recognized in the art world during the first half of the twentieth century. Among her many professional roles, she was president of the National Society of Mural Painters, first vice president of the Architectural League of New York, and the first woman to serve on the New York City Art Commission.Hildreth Meière’s papers are now among the holdings of the Archives of American Art. The papers include some of Meière’s 16-millimeter, mid-twentieth-century silent home movies. The films, shot in exquisite Kodachrome, include footage of the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair, constructed on 1,216 acres in, as it happens, Flushing. Although others have uploaded family footage of the fair to a variety of video sites, I longed to experience and examine Meière’s own moving images as a means of access to the artist’s eye.
Murals and sculpture were integral to the spirit of the fair. Under the supervision of Ernest Peixotto, thirty-five sculptors and a similar number of muralists received commissions for more than sixty sculptures and 105 murals, respectively, at an exposition that heralded the social and scientific advances of the “World of Tomorrow.” Meière’s assignments included, among others, “Asbestos” (a wonder product of its day, only later discovered to be a health menace) on the Johns-Manville Building; and, in stark paradox, a mural on the Medical and Public Health Building in which, according to the 1939 season’s official guidebook, a doctor “[points] out to an ailing humanity the resources of modern science.”
The murals I was most keen to study and interpret were those in the cloister of the Temple of Religion. For the temple cloister, Hildreth Meière and her colleague Austin Purves each created cartoons for six murals, representing religious buildings from the sixth century (Hagia Sophia, Constantinople) to the near present (Temple Emanu-El, completed only a decade before the fair). It was my fervent hope that Meière had captured the Temple of Religion murals in her personal Kodachrome survey.
This hope was all but dashed when I learned of the barriers to gaining access to the film’s content. First, there was the necessity of copying the film at a specialized lab, because of archival film’s fragility and the damage that could be caused by projecting or viewing the original. The fate of these particular reels was further complicated by the presence of vinegar syndrome. This condition had resulted from temperature and humidity fluctuation over the course of the films’ seventy-five-year lifespan, causing shrinking and buckling that adds to the cost and urgency of the lab work. In short, there was no assurance that the Meière films could be salvaged without quick and significant intervention. I took some comfort in the fact that assorted black and white still images of the Temple of Religion murals exist online, and I tried to curb my creeping regret. Slowly, I resigned myself to the likelihood that the films might be a complete loss.
But imagine my delight upon learning that, through a financial gift from an anonymous donor, expert film conservators had brought Meière’s movies back to life!
Over the course of hours, days, or weeks in 1939 or 1940, Meière had carried her camera through the vast expanse of the fairgrounds, pausing to record her own works and those of others; panning evenly, left to right, high to low; hovering at intervals, as if to contemplate the pieces in the moment, and for the future: for the fair and its buildings and art—the physical embodiment of the “World of the Tomorrow”—would be demolished, and the site cleared, after the close of the exposition.
What an opportunity we now have to accompany Hildreth Meière on her film tour, and to see the fair through this artist’s perspective as the world teetered on the precipice of World War II.
The fact that Hitler’s forces invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939 render Meière’s frames of the Czech and Polish Pavilions especially poignant.
And for this researcher, the desired content did not disappoint: there is the Temple of Religion, its blue cathedral glass glowing from the apse, through the nave, to the courtyard; and there are the Meière and Purves murals—Hagia Sophia, Temple Emanu-El, and ten other buildings representing the history of Western religions, and stories of religious freedom and oppression.
In a 1944 interview with Patty de Roulf, Meière stated,
‘I loved all the work I did for the Fair. . . . There is something warm and pulsating about a World’s Fair with all its glitter and fantasy. There’s also something dramatic about the way it lives for a day and then is all over, completely destroyed and forgotten after its brief moment of glory.’
And was it difficult to see her creations torn down after the Fair had closed? ‘Indeed not,’ replied Miss Meière. ‘My joy came in the creating. Supposing my work had been made only to rest in some museum, how many people would actually come to see it? Well, compare that figure with the great multitudes who swarmed into the World’s Fair day after day. No work is in vain if it is enjoyed by its contemporary world. Nor is a work less great because only one generation has been able to appreciate it. From my point of view, I know that my pleasure comes primarily from creating the work itself, regardless of how enduring it may be or what it may mean to others.’
There is something equally dramatic about the Archives of American Art’s giving new life to the 1939 World’s Fair through Meière’s own motion pictures; and about the prospect of these films’ enduring, and having meaning to others, in this contemporary world of digital media, and for generations to come.
Sally Stokes is an independent scholar who teaches in the Cultural Heritage Information Management course of study in the Department of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America. At the University of Maryland, she served as curator, the National Trust for Historic Preservation Library Collection, from 1987 to 2003; and as interim head, Art and Architecture Libraries, from 2013 to 2014. Her publications include articles about the California architects Allison & Allison, and the historical and cultural implications of the novels of the British author Noel Streatfeild. She has presented papers on fashion and the 1876 Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia, sheet music inspired by the bicycle craze of the 1890s, and the evacuation of European children to the United States in 1940. Sally has enjoyed performing archaeological and architectural fieldwork outdoors, but is never more at home than when immersed in archival material, in preparation for her next project.