York Post Office statues remind us to be thankful
You might have noticed, in person or on the news, that the Thanksgiving historical marker, across from the York County Administrative Center on East Market Street has been recently refurbished. It was first erected by the National Thanksgiving Foundation and other historical organizations to commemorate the Thanksgiving proclaimed while Congress was meeting here in York. It was spurred by the victory over the British at Saratoga, giving hope at a bleak time in our history.
My favorite York County Thanksgiving objects have always been the black walnut statues, now at the East York post office. They were originally at the imposing York post office at the corner of George and Princess streets, but were moved to East York when the downtown building was closed. My January 2009 column below on the regional art competition that spurred the statues is below. It was written in early 2009, as the massive downtown York post office was preparing to close, but before it was announced what would become of the statues.
York Post Office Statues Underappreciated Works of Art
It sounds like one of these days that the downtown York post office, a beautiful building both inside and out, isn’t going to be a post office any more. That brings up the question once again as to what will happen to the two striking statutes that loom over eight feet tall on either side of the main entrance.
The artistic competition in 1941 that produced these sculptures was a really big deal. Administered by the Section of Fine Arts, Public Buildings Administration, Federal Works Agency, it was open to any American sculptor from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and the six New England states.
Instructions were quite precise for each of the two proposed six feet tall works to be cast in bronze. Each sculptor was to submit an untinted or patinated plaster model in the scale of two inches to one foot. Each initial model had to be accompanied by a drawing in the same scale as well as an eight by ten photo of the model. Models were not to be signed, to ensure unbiased judging. Each model, drawing and photo set was accompanied by a plain envelope with the sculptor’s name and address inside on a three by five inch card, which would be opened after judging and approval by the Section of Fine Arts. If a sculptor wanted to submit more than one entry, he or she did not have to present a model for the second, just a drawing.
The model was to be delivered, at the artist’s expense, to the Pennsylvania State College (now Penn State, main campus) by August 4, 1941. They would be judged by J. Burn Helme and F. E. Hyslop, Jr. of the college’s art division and well known Paoli sculptor Wharton Esherick. Their recommendations, still anonymous, would be sent to the Section of Fine Arts in Washington for final approval.
The finished sculptures would each be set on a two foot square base that stood two and a quarter feet high, made of marble to harmonize with post office floor. Materials and the responsibility of installing the sculpture and the base were evidently all to come out of the $2,100 contract awarded to winners of the competition for each statue.
Potential entrants were urged to visit the post office to relate the sculpture to the building and to consider York and its history in choosing a subject. For alternative themes, the rules suggested something like the freedoms outlined by President Roosevelt in speeches earlier in the year.
Seventy-one sculptors submitted 118 plaster models to be judged. This might seem like a lot of entries for two $2,100 contracts, but the country was just coming out of a long depression and work was still scarce. The FWA wasn’t technically a Works Progress Administration (WPA) agency, but it still fell under what we are calling “economic stimulus” today.
The two winners both illustrated Thanksgiving, playing on the first national Thanksgiving proclamation issued by Continental Congress in York in 1777. George Kratina of Brooklyn, NY shows a father and daughter enthusiastically “Singing Thanksgiving.” New York City’s Carl Schmitz’s more detailed untitled statue reveals a farmer pausing in front of two sheaves of wheat to bow his head in thanksgiving.
Sculptor Moissay Marans, also from Brooklyn, although not one of the two chosen, was commended for his two submitted models since he “has obviously thought more about the location of his figures than most of the competitors….”
The statues were executed by the sculptors, but in black walnut, not bronze. We were in World War II before the project was finished, and metal was needed for the war effort. Black walnut is durable, attractive and often used for sculpture.
George Kratina was interviewed by Stew Mihm of the York Sunday News in 1986 for a story about the statues. Kratina told Mihm that “Singing Thanksgiving” took three or four months to complete and he and his father brought it to York in early 1942. Schmitz’s farmer was installed a little later. An internet search reveals that all three artists: Kratina, Schmitz and Marans became quite well known and prolific in American sculpture.
What will happen to these important works of art if the downtown post office is no more? According to the March 1, 1961 Gazette and Daily the post office tried to give them away at least once. In that issue the principal of Northeastern Junior-Senior High is pictured looking at the statues, which had been offered to the school. The postmaster at the time is quoted as saying that the space was “needed for other purposes.” From the photos it looks like they were in a different position than they are now.
I don’t know whether cooler heads prevailed or if the local postal officials might have discovered they just couldn’t give them away. The rules of the competition specify that the finished sculptures “shall become the property of the Government.”
Personally, I don’t want to see the post office leave its beautiful building at all, but if a new one is built or found in another location, eight square feet of floor space doesn’t seem like too much to ask to dedicate to these significant symbols of our past. York County residents have always been pretty good about saving our heritage. Let’s hope we do it this time too.