By Seth Daniel
Since the 1990s, various historians and those who celebrate Charlestown’s past had their sights set on getting the three iconic American history paintings restored and moved of the Charlestown District Courthouse to a museum – and no voice was greater on that than the late Carl Zellner.
That battle has raged far longer than the Revolution.
The idea has been for the paintings – which are one of-a-kind, very valuable and gifts en perpetuity to the people of Charlestown – restored, repaired, appraised and then placed in more of a museum setting.
Now that plan has taken a giant step forward with a $10,000 grant from the Wynn-funded Charlestown Community Impact Fund.
Charlestown Historical Society members Annette Tecce and Tom Coots said they hope to use the money to get the project started and leverage more resources in order to properly care for the paintings – something that will honor Zellner’s legacy on the Town’s historic research.
“These paintings are not only a piece of Charlestown’s history, but also they are part of America’s history,” said Coots. “They were created at a time when our country was in a growing stage. We were expanding, moving west, and the country had an increase in patriotism. The three paintings highlight crucial moments in America’s history as well as civic and political leaders.
“This project was near and dear to Carl Zellner, who championed the restoration cause years ago,” he continued. “Since Carl’s passing in 2014, members of the Charlestown Historical Society have revived the efforts to restore these American treasures. We hope to raise enough funds to restore them and hang them for all to enjoy.”
The paintings include an original by John Pope of Daniel Webster, and original copies of George Washington (done by Charlestown’s Jay Frothingham after the Gilbert Stuart original) and Andrew Jackson (by A.C. Holt in 1855 of the original done by Vandalyn in 1819). All three, especially the Webster, are believed to be of great value.
However, right now they hang in the courthouse, which is not climate controlled and where they are sometimes damaged by patrons.
“I really believe they should be in the Battle of Bunker Hill Museum,” she said. “They need to be publicly visible to tourists and the community, and they need to be in a protected environment. They were given to us to take care of and to display to the world. Our history isn’t just Charlestown only, but really it’s our national history. If they could be moved up to the Monument, I think more and more people would come to see them because they are not available anywhere else.”
Tecce said the Society is now updating a budget for the project that was made in 2013. The budget includes moving the paintings and restoring them. She said the Society is working with the National Park Service about placing them in the Museum, but those conversations are ongoing.
The paintings are owned by the City of Boston, but have an interesting history in that the caretakers are the Historical Society, and they actually pre-date annexation. In all honestly, they were given to the people of Charlestown to forever enjoy and take care of, she said.
Before annexation in the late 1800s, residents and prominent citizens commissioned the paintings and gave them to the Town. They hung in the old Charlestown Town Hall in City Square for many years, and then in the Charlestown Library that occupied that building. After annexation, they became property of the Boston Public Library when it absorbed the Charlestown Library. After City Hall was torn down and the courthouse re-build in 1917, they traveled around a bit and then landed back in the main courtroom of the Court – where they still hang today. Mostly, that’s because it was the only facility large enough to hang them.
The entire project is estimated somewhere in the range of $100,000.