American Alley’s Secret WPA Murals…Hiding in Plain Sight…PART I

Third in the series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

Past articles are filed under American Alley

At this point, a brief explanation of the photo grid project–the exercise that led me to explore American Alley–is in order. Photo grids have many definitions and applications. My approach is to cover the same territory on a regular basis at different times of the day to see what circumstance and lighting present as possible subjects during each pass. Opportunities vary on each walk.

What I call The Bovine Photo Grid  starts at the Bovine Bakery, runs down Kentucky to East Washington, and then back to the walkway into Putnam Plaza. Next, I scan and/or walk Petaluma Blvd for possible shots, and then proceed to the River and Water Street.  The grid ends by looping back to the bakery.

And so it was on March 17, 2012  

St. Patrick’s Day was cloudy and, frankly, not particularly warm. I decided to go ahead and walk the grid but did so with a mostly pro forma attitude. I just wanted to get through it, take a few pictures, get a cup of coffee, and go home to warm up.

Around 9:30 am, I was on the pedestrian walkway connecting Kentucky and Petaluma Boulevard. I had just taken a few steps into Putnam Plaza when the sun broke through a hole in the clouds. At that point I happened to look over my shoulder at the back of Copperfield’s when something on the upper wall caught my eye . I ignored it momentarily, but then thought I should take a quick look to see if it was just the light playing tricks on me…or whether something was there.

Confused What the…?Surprised smile

As I stepped from Putnam Plaza into the alley behind Copperfield’s, I was–there is no other word–stunned 

I was looking squarely at a very large mural, in fact, several mural panels stretching across the upper part of the building. As I continued along the back of the store, I tried to absorb the scope of the designs and the sophistication of the work. When I reached the end of the building I had counted or noted:

  • 12 Mural Panels (8 Large 4 Small) on the upper half of the building
  • Several wooden gears integrated with the mural panels
  • What appears to be decorative piping surrounding some of the panels

The next day, I went back to make sure I had not been hallucinating and observed that the bottom part of the building up to the top of the doors was a single mural of several large gears running the length of the building. This work was not readily visible the day before as the walls were wet.  It was obvious that it was part of the artwork on the upper part of the building. 

There was no other conclusion I could come to except that the back of Copperfield’s was home to the largest mixed media public art in Petaluma.  And I will stand by this assertion until someone comes along and points out a larger one! 

Regarding the “style” of the work, I thought of the WPA art work from the 1930’s, although some of it looked to be influenced by Post World War II themes. 

One of the large mural panels really caught my attention as it reminded me of a poster in my father’s office at Caterpillar.  Such artwork was common in the industrial environment in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s…

American Alley © Frank Simpson

But what the heck was all of this doing here in American Alley on the back of Copperfield’s? Certainly it had to be fairly recent given the apparent condition of the work. Who did it? Why did they do it? When was it done?

TOMORROW–Searching for answers in American Alley’s Secret WPA Murals…Hiding in Plain Sight…PART II