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Detective work uncovers unique history of Idaho’s oldest building

Amy Burton holds the Pacific Railroad Survey volume, where she found the Old Mission lithograph. The Cataldo landscape medallion is on the wall behind her.
Amy Burton holds the Pacific Railroad Survey volume, where she found the Old Mission lithograph. The Cataldo landscape medallion is on the wall behind her.

Among all the thousands of square feet of 19th century murals and frescoes that adorn the U.S. Capitol, only one small landscape shows a building that still exists — and it’s located in Idaho.

The image of the Old Mission in Cataldo can be found on the first floor of the Senate wing, in the famous Brumidi Corridors, which have been called “some of the most artistically ornate and creatively decorated hallways in the nation.”

Also known as the Mission of the Sacred Heart, the Old Mission was constructed by Catholic missionaries and members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe between 1850 and 1853. It is the oldest building in Idaho.

How its likeness came to occupy such a central location in the Senate, where members and visitors would walk past it every day, is a story that reflects the interests and ambitions of a young nation, as well as efforts to identify the first transcontinental railway route.

The tale was also lost for 150 years, until it was uncovered through some persistent detective work.

“It’s an exciting discovery,” said Assistant Curator Amy Burton with the Office of Senate Curator. “Very few states are represented in the Capitol’s wall murals. For this building to still be standing is one of the things that makes it so special.”

VATICAN ARTIST, CAPITOL EXPANSION

Even as work on the Old Mission was being completed, work was just beginning on a major expansion of the Capitol. New House and Senate wings were being added, reflecting the growing number of states and increased membership in Congress. A massive new cast iron dome was authorized as well.

Although Capitol Architect Thomas Walter originally envisioned the new wings as having plain walls and a few framed paintings, construction supervisor Montgomery Meigs had other ideas. Meigs wanted a more artistic interior — something with frescoes and murals that rivaled the great buildings of Europe — and he hired 49-year-old Constantino Brumidi to lead the effort.

Brumidi, a classically trained artist born in Rome, had worked in the Vatican, helping to restore the Raphael loggias and other frescoes. He had recently immigrated to America, after being arrested and imprisoned during the Italian independence movement.

Hired by Meigs in December 1854, Brumidi spent the next 25 years working at the Capitol. Paid the lofty sum of $8 per day — the same as a member of Congress — he was put in charge of a cadre of artists and artisans.

Although most famous for “The Apotheosis of Washington,” his massive fresco under the Capitol dome, Brumidi also created the design and painted many of the scenes in the corridors that now bear his name.

Beside ornately tiled floors and complex wall and ceiling frescoes, the corridors feature eight prominent “landscape medallions” at the intersections near two entryways. Each oval painting is about the size of a large serving platter and depicts a peaceful scene of lakes or rivers, trees and mountains.

“People thought these were just generic scenes,” Burton said. “But they’re located in a central spot, so that didn’t seem to fit.”

LITHOGRAPHS AND EIGHT LANDSCAPES

Burton had previously discovered that a congressional report highlighting the flora and fauna along the U.S.-Mexico border was a source of inspiration for about three dozen of the 350 birds Brumidi painted along the corridor walls.

The two-volume report was issued in 1857 and 1859, right at the time Brumidi was starting work on the corridors. They contained hand-colored lithographs of Western birds such as the blue-crowned motmot and gila woodpecker, which were unknown in the East.

Then, about four years ago, Burton was looking through another set of reports dating from that era — the enormous, 12-volume “Pacific Railroad Survey,” which was printed between 1855 and 1861 — and discovered a series of lithographs that provided the basis for all eight landscape medallions.

“I’d studied the medallions for so long I had them memorized,” she said.

I was in the Senate Library flipping through the report and recognized one of the landscapes. That was the ‘a-ha moment.’

Amy Burton, Office of Senate Curator

Besides Idaho’s Old Mission, the medallions depict Mount Baker and Cape Horn in Washington, a Hudson Bay Co. mill in Washington that no longer exists, the Bitterroot River in Montana, Franklin River Valley in Nevada, Sangre de Cristo Pass in Colorado and the Bois de Sioux River in Minnesota.

“After Brumidi passed away, no one knew what these landscapes were,” Burton said. “Now we’ve identified an actual (geographic) place.”

Brumidi’s Cataldo scene is not an exact replica of the Old Mission building, possibly because of subsequent alterations. Consequently, without the railroad survey sketch to compare it with, the Capitol’s Idaho connection would be easy to overlook.

“I walked by that painting every time I came to the Capitol and never realized it,” said Vicki Risch, wife of Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho.

Besides a century’s worth of dirt and varnish, various campaigns to repaint and update the corridors had covered up much of Brumidi’s original work.

Professional restoration efforts began on the corridors about 20 years ago. Layers of over-paint and grime were removed with scalpels, one small section at a time, revealing the original frescoes. Risch had been following the work as it progressed and was thrilled when Burton mentioned the link with Cataldo.

“Idaho has two statues in the Capitol (as do most states), but people are more interested in hearing about this,” she said. “Not every state has a fresco in the walls of the Capitol.”

SURVEY EXPEDITIONS IN WEST

The Pacific Railroad Survey expeditions took place from 1853 to 1855 — right at the time work was being completed on the Old Mission and just as Brumidi was beginning his work at the Capitol.

The primary focus was to find the best route for the first transcontinental railway, but artists and scientists took part as well, collecting samples and broadening the country’s understanding of the West.

The northern expedition was led by Isaac Stevens, the first governor of the Washington Territory. Stevens spent much of his time quarreling with his insubordinate surveyor, George McClellan, who a decade later would be sacked as commander of the Union Army for failing to take the fight to his Confederate counterpart, Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The group crossed into Idaho, which was then part of the Washington Territory, in October 1853. Near what’s now Lookout Pass, the expedition report notes that the team “made a long halt, enjoying the magnificent view spread open to us, which ... can scarcely be surpassed in any country.”

The expedition artist was John Mix Stanley, who might be a household name today had his paintings and field sketches not been destroyed in three separate fires.

The work of expedition artist John Mix Stanley was lost in fires.

“He spent a dozen years painting Indians and the scenery of the West before the railroads arrived,” Burton said. “I think we’d all know his name” if it weren’t for the fires.

The debate over the transcontinental railroad was a topic of popular conversation, and it was something Brumidi would have been familiar with as he painted the corridors. He also would have had access to the survey reports as they were printed.

“When Brumidi was painting the landscape medallions, these areas weren’t states,” Burton said. “I think he was responding to the interests of Congress. He was saying, ‘This is your territory, America; come and settle it.’ ”

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