PORTRAYING DIGNITY 

Mayoral hall of fame stands in silent vigil outside City Council chamber

Some of them gaze off into the distance, and some of them look you straight in the eye, with various expressions on their faces. At least one of them appears to cast an accusing eye: "You're gonna spend how much taxpayer money?" And a few stare jauntily down at you, issuing

 
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Wayne Bowden of the San Antonio Conservation Society holds up the mystery portrait stored in the attic of the Steves Homestead. Photo by Mark Greenberg
a challenge to top his (or her, Lila Cockrell) accomplishments along the path of San Antonio's long history.

Whether they left a legacy of public service, or fleeced the taxpayer, or both, these 32 "republic" mayors were recorded for posterity in lifelike portraits that reflect the dignity of the office of mayor of San Antonio. The long list of the Spanish alcaldes who served from 1731 to 1836 are not included in the portraits.

A handful of artists were commissioned to paint the portraits, a tradition that picked up after a long hiatus by Henry Cisneros. Artist Sally Phillips Buffington painted Cisneros and included a background that resembles a galaxy somewhere in space. She also painted Lila Cockrell, who appears angelic, and former Mayor Nelson Wolff, who later commissioned another artist to paint the portrait that hangs in the lobby today.

Mayor William Thornton's portrait is the gaudiest of the works. He went in for props as background. The Tower-Life Building and the Royalty Coin shop stand behind him, and the atmosphere has touches of either fireworks or cascarone confetti - hard to tell which.

The only other portrait with significant background props is that of Maury Maverick, painted by Harry Westhouse. It features an image of the Alamo and the River Walk. Maverick is famous for a 1938 City ordinance that created La Villita.

Howard Peak commissioned Anthony Gonzalez to paint his portrait in 2001 after he left his term in office. Peak, after fidgeting for some time in a formal pose, gave a photo to the artist. Former

James M. LeFlore, public art and design enhancement coordinator for the City, said the only likely way to bring the missing 25 or so mayors back to City Hall would be through grant funding or public donations.
Mayor Wolff saw the work, and commissioned Gonzalez to paint his portrait. "Apparently they have a little rivalry going on," Gonzalez said. "Peak said 'mine is better,' They needled each other, but they are good friends."

Gonzalez also painted a portrait of François F. Giraud, who served as mayor from November 13, 1872 to January 19, 1875. Giraud was also City Engineer from 1849 to 1853. He built St. Mary's College, St. Mary's Catholic Church, and some buildings for the old Ursuline Academy when it was downtown.

The portrait artist who began the mayoral hall of fame at City Hall was Solomon "Solly" Salomon, who left Prussia in 1892, bound for the New World. He worked briefly in the boiler room of a freighter before he jumped ship in Africa and made his way to Canada, where he made a living as a bare-fisted boxer under the name of Charly Prince.

By 1907, he lived in San Antonio, and at some point convinced City leaders that he could paint a series of portraits of the mayors who had served in office from 1837 to the present-day. Locals pitched in $5 here and $10 there, and today there are 16 mayoral portraits by Saloman in the municipal building's lobby. It is unclear what each portrait cost, but Salomon once advertised a Christmas special for a $250 portrait at the bargain basement price of $50.

Salomon was a prolific painter of presidents, governors, judges, Texas Rangers and other dignitaries. He painted a portrait from a likeness of Sam Houston that once hung in the lobby of the Gunter Hotel. He also painted a portrait of Stephen F. Austin; which hangs today

 
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W.C.A. Thielpape was appointed mayor at the end of the Civil war.
on a wall in the library at the Alamo. He painted heroes of the Alamo. His work depicting James Bonham was printed on the magazine cover in April 1914 for the Alamo Hero Monument Association. A letter Salomon wrote to James DeShields of Dallas mentions Mrs. Barrera, who owned a portrait of Susana Dickinson and her baby at the Alamo.

Since Salomon died in 1937, it would be difficult to discover why some of the Republic mayors were not painted or, if they were painted, why they have disappeared.

Constance Jones-Cruise explained what happened to a portrait of her ancestor, John Mansfield Carolan, who served as mayor from January 1, 1854 to January 1, 1855 - a mayor who only served for only one year during a period preceding the Civil War.

"The picture was stolen," Cruise says. "My grandmother had a handsome portrait done, possibly a Salomon. It was a very handsome picture, and she had it made specifically to hang in the chamber, but it was stolen long before that." Carolan owned an auction house on the site where City Council meets today. He sold his property to the Frost brothers, who built a bank on the site before the City bought it to use for offices in the early '90s.

The collection of mayoral portraits was loaned to the San Antonio Conservation Society in 1959 when City Hall was to undergo renovations. Mrs. Winfield Hamlin, president of the society in 1962, said the City let it be known that the portraits of the mayors were to be removed in 1959. They were cleaned, repaired, and restored in 1962, and put on display at the San Antonio Press Club at 517 Villita Street, according to a clipping from the San Antonio Light.

After they were displayed for several years in La Villita's Old San Antonio Museum in Bolivar Hall, the portraits disappeared from the public view. Current Conservation Society President Jill Harrison Souter said 24 of the portraits were taken off display and put into storage in a West Side warehouse, where they remained until the City finished out its new council chamber in 1993. "We became the custodians of 24 portraits because nobody wanted them," Souter explains.

"When we built the new council chambers, I was talking to the Conservation Society," current Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff says. "They had the portraits stored in a warehouse." The Conservation Society, which had donated $30,000 for work on the chamber's ceiling, put up another $10,000, and the portraits were restored.

They were put on display in their current location in 1994, when the new building's grand opening was planned. Wolff at the time made a plea to citizens to help track down missing mayoral portraits, or to make donations to have the remaining 24 (we counted 26) portraits painted, perhaps by Gonzalez or other modern-day portrait artists.

Gonzalez charges $2,000 per portrait. "That is a bargain," Rebecca Waldman, the City's Asset Manager, says. "There's a period of the 1950s and 1960s where none were painted. It was a routine matter many years ago when Salomon painted portraits. At some point they stopped, and it would be nice to have the whole collection filled in.

One mystery portrait gathers dust on the top floor of the Steves Homestead in King William. The portrait was not restored in 1993, and the Conservation Society has no information about who it is, except that it could be one of the mayors.

A little footwork reveals that the portrait - which appears to have been signed by Salomon in 1913 - bears a powerful resemblance to a photo of former mayor Augustus H. Jones that appeared on the front pages of the Light and the Express-News on April 8, 1913. Jones had died of apoplexy around 10:30 p.m. the previous night, after a rigorous City Council meeting.

The mystery is partially solved, if it indeed is a portrait of Jones, but some speculation is needed here. A portrait depicting an older-appearing Mayor Jones already hangs at the Municipal Plaza Building. It is signed and dated 1943 by Agela Guerra. Someone commissioned the artist to paint Jones, and the Salomon portrait mysteriously appeared in Bolivar Hall in the early 1970s.

Salomon took some artistic liberties, apparently. He reversed the position of the head and torso in the painting, and that could be the cause for its rejection. The dilemma of what to do with the aging Salomon portrait of Jones is in the hands of the Conservation Society.

James M. LeFlore, public art and design enhancement coordinator for the City, said the only likely way to bring the missing 25 or so mayors back to City Hall would be through grant funding or public donations. He also said some sort of commemorative plaque for the Spanish mayors would be appropriate. And a maintenance program would benefit the existing portraits. "It might be a good idea to have them looked at."

Today, the 32 mayoral portraits, valued by Wolff at $10 million, reside where they belong in the lobby of the City Council chamber. Given time and money, they could eventually be joined by their colleagues. •


More by Michael Cary

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