A Man Known Only By His Work; The painted ceilings in the Meeker Mansion
Early newspaper accounts of the Meekers and their Mansion mention handpainted ceilings. By the time the Historical Society took over the house in 1970, all the ceilings had been obscured by dropped ceilings, held in place by heavy lumber. Removal of these dropped ceilings didn’t help much, as the original paintings had been covered over with 8-12 layers of paint (not surprising, as the lighting in the early years was gas, with some smoke to damage the paintings). No photos or drawings of these original paintings have ever been found, and even the identity of the painter was unknown. The only clues to his identity were that he was European, or European-trained, and that he lived in the Mansion for a year while he was doing this work.
About 1972, Ken Hopkins of the State Capitol Museum advised the Society how to reveal the original paintings, and, with the help of volunteers in the Society, he and his daughter uncovered the painting in the drawing room, the largest of the downstairs rooms. In the process they found the painting covered with 12 layers of paint, and after the original was recovered, 3,000 wood screws were needed to stabilize the nearly century-old plaster. The original plaster was then sealed, covered with a skim coat of plaster, and the same painting, complete in every detail, copied from the now-obscured original was repainted . The process took about two years.
Buoyed by this success, over a period of over 20 years, one by one the original paintings were uncovered, copied and repainted. In each case the process was the same: remove the newer paint, and reveal the original, copy the painting, stabilize the ceiling, replace the painting. Still the identity of the painter remained a mystery. Society members were sure that this person had a track record, and that someday they would find another building with restored ceilings, and be greeted with the information that this painter was the same one who had painted the ceilings in the Meeker home in 1890-91. Nonetheless, details about his work and training could be deduced from the body of work he left behind in Puyallup.
- There was no doubt that he was trained by a European, or someone who had been European trained.
- He had an exquisite eye for color.
- He was less than perfect on corners. His measurements just didn’t work out exactly.
- His “hand” was recognizable. Our restoration artist could tell the difference between his work and a later restoration
- More than that was not known.
In the Spring of 2000 a woman researching Northwest Artists visited the Mansion to view a painting in the Mansion collection. a discussion of the restoration of the dining-room ceiling brought out the fact that the painter was unknown. A few weeks later this woman returned with information about a man who had finally settled in Seattle, and who claimed to have painted our ceilings.
About the Painter
Frederick Nelson Atwood was born in Boston, Mass in 1867 and studied art in several eastern art schools. Under the tutelage of his father he specialized in decorating theaters across the country, particularly in fresco work. A desire to pioneer brought him West. After working on the Meeker Mansion, he homesteaded in Queets, on the Olympic Peninsula. He returned to Chicago in 1895, participated in the Yukon and Klondike gold rush, opened a business in Dawson City and finally worked in Seattle for a Life Insurance Company. We do not yet have a photo, but we feel that we know him well, by his work.