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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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't” Washington 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.
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