Staircase to a Magical Mural
Oct 15, 2017 11:05AM
By Carol Crissey Nigrelli
A house hunting expedition 30 years ago, spurred by the needs of their growing family, eventually led Maureen and Jim Waldron to tour a Spanish-style home of ivory stucco on South 56th Street between Farnam and Harney streets in Omaha’s historic Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood.
The size and openness of the living room with its honest-to-goodness slate floor—a testament to 1925 architecture—decorative tiles, carved wood, and wrought-iron accents throughout the house, not to mention several bathrooms, appealed to both their aesthetic and practical senses.
But nothing prepared the couple for what they saw when they passed by the dining room and reached the stairs leading to the second floor.
A mural of a cornfield, in shades of green and accented with gold leaf, filled the east wall adjacent to the staircase and followed the wall’s narrow angle upwards. A second mural of a barn and rustic fence covered the entire wall facing the bottom of the stairs. The artist camouflaged the light switch by making it a part of a fence post. Connecting the two oil paintings, there is a continuation of the field along a narrow strip of wall between the ceiling and the frame of a door leading to the kitchen.
Who painted it and when? The Waldrons didn’t know, but they believed only a professional hand could have created something so unique, so vibrant, and so unexpected. Not everyone touring the house that day shared their sentiment.
“Well, this thing is going to have to go in a hurry,” a woman sniffed to her husband, waving her hand dismissively toward the mural.
Maureen remembers closing her eyes and thinking, “Oh please, don’t let this woman get this house. We may not get it, but she doesn’t deserve this house.”
The Waldrons prevailed and so did the painting.
Shortly after moving into their new home, a neighbor, who happened to be an art appraiser, walked across the street and asked Jim and Maureen, “You haven’t touched that mural, have you?”
She had good reason for concern.
The staircase cornfield, the neighbor informed them, was drawn by artist Eugene Kingman. He and his family moved to Omaha in 1946 and lived in the house through the early ’70s, during his tenure as director of the Joslyn Art Museum.
The name Eugene Kingman didn’t ring a bell with either Maureen or Jim. But from that day forward, the couple’s son and daughter, ages 2 and 4 at the time, heard “don’t put your hand on the painting!” every time they climbed the stairway to their rooms.
For the next 24 years, Jim built his law practice and Maureen worked in corporate public relations before co-founding the online ministries program at Creighton University, their alma mater. In 2011, Maureen finally found the time to “Google” Kingman’s name and write letters. She realized that he painted more than just walls in Omaha—her research and perseverance proved a catalyst for a chain of events that still resonates from Omaha to New York City.
Kingman, she discovered, had already won awards as a cartographer, painter, and muralist when (in 1946) then-publisher of The New York Times Arthur Hayes Sulzberger commissioned him to paint a 20-foot-long mural for the newspaper giant’s newly renovated lobby on West 43rd Street in New York City.
That same year, Omaha came calling with a job offer at the Joslyn.
“He asked for—and got—permission from the Joslyn, his new employer, to do the high-profile mural for the Times,” Maureen says. “We have pictures of him painting the mural in the Joslyn. We now believe he painted it in one of the Joslyn’s galleries, not the basement.”
Kingman’s iconic post-war mural, a depiction of the Northern Hemisphere as viewed from space, greeted famous newsmakers and crusty news reporters in the Times lobby for more than 40 years before winding up in storage for another three decades.
With the help of the muralist’s two daughters, Elizabeth Kingman and Mixie Kingman Eddy, Maureen and a group of Omaha friends persuaded the Times to part with the mural. In 2014, a rolled up, dusty, and nicotine-filled canvas arrived in Omaha, donated by the Times to the nonprofit Joslyn Castle Trust. Kingman’s newly restored work now hangs in the W. Dale Clark Library downtown.
Having shined a light on an under-appreciated talent, Maureen, in turn, became enlightened on the origins of the staircase mural.
Kingman, a native of Rhode Island, “fell in love with the Midwest and West when the U.S. Department of the Interior commissioned him to paint seven national parks while he was an undergraduate at Yale,” Maureen says. “He absolutely loved the openness of Nebraska and loved to paint cornfields.”
So when his wife, Betty, lamented that their little daughters were leaving dirty fingerprints on the ivory stucco walls along the staircase, Kingman did what any self-respecting muralist would do: He painted what Mixie would later call “magical cornfields” to hide their fingerprints, thus enabling Mixie and Elizabeth to continue touching the wall—a luxury the Waldron children never had; nor does the next generation.
When the Waldrons’ four-year-old granddaughter recently visited with a little friend, the tot issued a warning of—you guessed it—“don’t put your hand on Nana’s painting!”
Visit eugenekingman.com for more information about the artist.This article appears in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home.