– Featured Library Artists and Murals: A WPA Legacy

Although originally founded in 1914, the Mary S. Biesecker Public Library’s current location dates to 1943. The library at 230 South Rosina Avenue was constructed as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program created to provide jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression, providing not only employment but a number of much-needed infrastructural projects across the United States. The WPA along with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were heavily active in Somerset County during that period. Learn more about the WPA and search locations of WPA sites through the Living New Deal website.

Soon after its creation in 1943, the library was gifted three murals by artists associated with the Somerset Summer Art School of 1939-1940. This was a popular artist’s colony in Laurel Hill State Park created by the three artists below, along with painter Samuel Rosenberg. This School employed artists well-known for their work in a variety of fields, each of whom sought to capture unique and important moments in Somerset County History.

Esther Topp Edmonds: Landscape Artist and Educator

Esther Topp Edmonds (1893-1954) was the daughter of a prominent architect, O.M. Topp, from Pittsburgh, PA. Educated at Cornell University and the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), she traveled back and forth between the United States and Norway, painting primarily landscape portraits in watercolor. In 1944 she created a mural for the Biesecker Library, showing President James Buchanan and Secretary of State Jeremiah Black (a Somerset native) discussing the crisis at Fort Sumter just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Topp spent most of her life in Pittsburgh, teaching art courses at Carnegie Tech. She died in Stockton, California in 1954. Learn more.

Kindred McLeary: Artist and Architect

Born in Weimar, Texas, artist Kindred McLeary (1901-1949) taught courses on art and architecture at Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh and maintained a private studio in Confluence, PA. McLeary is best-remembered for his murals commissioned by the WPA in the ’30s, the most famous of which, “Defense of Human Freedoms,” hangs in the U.S. State Department headquarters in Washington. He also painted the center wall mural overlooking the circulation desk, depicting Frederick C. Goeb printing the “first Bible West of the Alleghenies” in Somerset in 1813. Learn more.

Alexander Jusserand Kostellow: Graphic Artist and Educator

Born in modern-day Iran, Alexander Jusserand Kostellow (1894-1954) studied art in Paris and Berlin before emigrating to the United States in 1916. A true Man for All Seasons, Kostellow was a prolific artist who also earned a reputation as “the father of industrial design education” by creating an extensive curriculum at Carnegie Tech in the 1930s, then teaching at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Among his students was Bill Mitchell, the designer of classic GM cars from the Chevrolet Bel Air to the Corvette Stingray. Kostellow painted the third mural in the Mary S. Biesecker Public Library, depicting the arrival of early pioneer Harmon Husband to the “New Jerusalem” in Western Pennsylvania. Kostellow also oversaw painting of the murals in the Somerset Post office and took part in several local art exhibitions during his time at the Summer Art School. Learn more.

Pennsylvania Art Prints by Katherine Milhous

We also unveiled our original Federal Art Project prints from noted artist Katherine Milhous for display in our genealogy room. Milhous, a native of Philadelphia, was born to a Quaker family and grew up disappointed that there wasn’t more art celebrating her state’s native heritage. In the 1930s, she served as director of the Federal Art Project in Philadelphia, a sub-agency of the WPA, which created a series of vibrant and expressive graphic prints celebrating Pennsylvania, particularly its Amish and German-American heritage. Milhous’s work was widely acclaimed and displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. She later gained further renown as an author and illustrator children’s books; her most famous work, The Egg Tree, won the Caldecott Medal in 1951. Learn more about Katherine Milhous, and access the Library of Congress’s online catalog of her work.

We are proud to host these unique art works celebrating Somerset and Pennsylvania heritage. They demonstrate the Mary S. Biesecker Public Library’s long and proud history, along with placing us in the context of our state and country’s development. We hope that next time you visit the library, you’ll take a moment to enjoy these special works of art.