Williamstown woman remembers mural she did in Adams Post Office

12:00AM / Wednesday, November 14, 2001

For Helen Stoller, moving to Sweetwood retirement community in Williamstown this year spring meant a return to North Berkshire, where more than 60 years ago, as a recent art school graduate, she painted a now-vanished mural in the brand-new Adams Post Office.

When Stoller and her husband, noted architectural photographer Ezra Stoller, went to view her creation, they discovered that the mural no longer exists, because the wall it adorned was moved in the late 1970s.

The mural, featuring Adams native daughter and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony, was actually her second design, as the first had been ruled too abstract, Stoller said in a recent interview at her Sweetwood apartment.

“The wall was built for me, so I could paint on moist plaster,” she said. This technique, the same used in Italian frescoes, is supposed to be long-lasting.

“But it didn’t last forever,” said Stoller. “We drove over and looked for it, but the wall is gone.”

Stoller has a black-and-white photograph of the completed mural — which depicts Anthony’s figure prominently placed among a group of Quakers, who settled Adams in the late 18th century, with Mount Greylock in the background.

And Stoller, now 86, has her memories of the work, underwritten by the federal government in many post offices throughout the country.

She remembers working rapidly, and completing the mural in only a couple of weeks.

“I remember sitting on the floor and grinding up my paints,” she said. On weekends, her new husband joined her and helped with the pigment grinding task.

“It was a new experience. It was exciting,” she said.

She applied for the federally-funded program, and was assigned to the Adams Post Office, which was dedicated in January, 1940.

“I was told, ‘Here is the place you’re going to do your work,’ ” she recalled.

Eugene Michalenko, vice president of the Adams Historical Society, remembers seeing the mural as a child, and recalled that the postmaster at that time was Joseph Wilk, who has since died.

“I liked that mural,” said Michalenko. The building itself, he said, freestanding near the traffic lights, still exists. The town, he said, formerly had four post offices, the others being on the west side of Park Street, the Center to Collins block, and the Armory block.

The mural, he said, was “on the left as you walked into the building.”

Stoller said she hopes to donate a print of the photograph to the historical collection at the Adams Free Library, and Michalenko said the town would be pleased to have that documentation of part of its vanished history.

Stoller, then Helen Rubin before her marriage, had moved to New York City from Reading, Pa., to attend Cooper Union, graduating in 1937. It was the first year male students were allowed in the art program there. Previously, men students studied engineering, but not art.

The program that underwrote Stoller’s mural, and so many others, was probably a continuation of the Federal Arts Project, according to the Silvio O. Conte National Archives in Pittsfield.

Their sunny apartment at Sweetwood is filled with many of Helen Stoller’s artworks — paintings, collages and sculpture — and Ezra Stoller’s striking photographs, plus artworks collected in many worldwide travels.

The couple say they moved to Sweetwood because of its appeal, because of the area’s cultural offerings, and because one of their sons lives in nearby New Lebanon. Another son lives in Shokan, N.Y., and their daughter is in Rye, N.Y.

They are also pleased to find themselves in the area of Mrs. Stoller’s early work. But since the mural has vanished, it can’t really be, in the phrase immortalized by that great wordsmith Yogi Berra, “ ... like déjà vu all over again.”

iBerkshires • 102 Main Street
North Adams, MA 01247 • tel: 413.663.3384 • fax: 413.664.4251 • info@iberkshires.com