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Center For Hellenic Studies Gets A Piece Of The Rock

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One of Hildreth Meire’s Prudential mosaics will be installed facing the courtyard of D.C.’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
Hildreth Meiere Dunn
One of Hildreth Meire’s Prudential mosaics will be installed facing the courtyard of D.C.’s Center for Hellenic Studies.

You know the old saying, "You can never go home again"? A new art installation in Washington, D.C., may very well be proving that old adage wrong.

The Center for Hellenic Studies in Northwest D.C. is a Harvard institution devoted to ancient Greek language and culture. Harvard opened the 6.5-acre campus in 1962. And 51 years later, on the circular driveway outside the main building, a truck-mounted crane is lifting two massive wooden crates up over the roof, and into the courtyard.

Each crate spans the surface area of about six king-size beds, and weighs more than two U.S. mail trucks. Inside each crate is, in short, a masterpiece: multicolored marble mosaics, depicting each side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Each mosaic contains 46,000, from 13 different countries. The panels were designed back in 1960 for Newark, New Jersey's Prudential Center — you know, "Own a piece of the rock"? They lived there until 1998, when the building was remodeled.

The artist was Hildreth Meiere: perhaps the most famous art-deco muralist you've never heard of. She started working in the 1920s, and her mosaics can be found everywhere, from Radio City Music Hall in New York City, to the National Cathedral and National Academy of Sciences in Washington, to the State Capitol Building in Lincoln, Neb.

"Yet she sort of got lost in the shuffle," says Catherine Coleman Brawer, who's co-authoring a book on the artist. "Many people know her work; they just don't know that she did it!"

And up until a few years ago, Cathy was one of those people.

"The true story is that my husband and I live in an apartment that was Hildreth Meiere's studio! And that was how I learned about Hildreth Meiere."

Since then, Cathy has become a Meiere devotee. In addition to writing a book, she also serves as a spokeswoman for the International Hildreth Meiere Association. And back in 2009, Cathy curated an exhibition called "Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meiere." It debuted at St. Bonaventure University's Quick Center for the Arts, and traveled to the National Building Museum, and then the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan."

As for those panels being heaved over the wall of the Center for Hellenic Studies, their journey also started at the Quick Center -- in a way. As International Hildreth Meiere Association vice-president Hildreth "Hilly" Meiere Dunn (the artist's granddaughter) Hilly explains, back in 2009, when the exhibit opened at St. Bonaventure, the Prudential panels were thought to be lost.

"So when that exhibition happened, and this beautiful catalogue written by Catherine Coleman Brawer came out, the archivist at Prudential took it around to everybody," Hilly recounts. "And all of a sudden, they were like, 'The panels! We have the panels! They're in storage!'"

Originally there were actually three panels; the center one depicted the actual Rock of Gibraltar on which Prudential's slogan is based. Prudential donated that one to the Newark Museum, and then asked the Association to find a home for the other two.

None of the panels were in great shape when they were found, so the Association raised money to restore them. And in 2011, when the Meiere exhibit moved to the National Building Museum in D.C, that's when the ball really got rolling — when Tom Luebke, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, heard Cathy Brawer give a talk about Hildreth Meiere at the National Building Museum.

"Hildreth Meiere was a talented mosaicist and her work is in a number of wonderful places, including the Nebraska State Capitol," Luebke says. "I grew up in Lincoln, Neb., and I was very familiar with this work."

So Tom and Cathy eventually got to chatting about the artist, and the Prudential murals, and Cathy mentioned that the Hildreth Meiere International Association was trying to find a home for two of them.

"She just said, 'You know so many people in Washington, and places, maybe there's some idea you might have about that,'" Luebke recounts. "And these are beautiful things that show the Gates of Gibraltar, and I thought it might be really great if there were some institution or place that would really appreciate the subject matter of these murals for what they were."

Luebke thought about the Center for Hellenic Studies, and called up Richard Williams, an architect friend who had done a bunch of work there.

"He said that's a really interesting idea, because they're looking about trying to do something to improve their courtyard or something," Luebke explains. "So he basically took it from there. He took the project to the Center administration and they got very excited about it."

...So excited, that now those murals are making a brand new home in the Center's courtyard. And the Center's director, Gregory Nagy, says it's a perfect fit. The way he sees it, the image on the mosaics — the Strait of Gibraltar — represents the Center's commitment to scholarship and the never-ending quest for knowledge.

"It's the portal to mediate between the known and the unknown," he says. What's more, he believes that after the mosaics languished in storage for so many years, their arrival represents a kind of homecoming.

"In ancient Greek, the symbolic word is nostos," Nagy explains. "Which is not only a homecoming, but a return to light and life."

And speaking of 'light,' under a sunny blue sky, as a team of workmen maneuvers the first crate into the Center For Hellenic Studies' courtyard, Hilly Meiere Dunn leads a crowd of staffers and other guests in a round of applause.

"I almost have tears in my eyes," she says. "[From] not knowing whether they existed or not, to finding out that they do exist, to seeing them needing restoration, raising the money, getting them restored, finding them an incredible home, how more appropriate could this be? And then to see all these people that it takes to get this all to happen. That was quite an experience!"

An experience that suggests that home, sweet home, may very well be where the heart is. Or, in this case, where the art is.

[Music: "Moving In (Reprise)" by Eric Shimelonis]

Video: Center for Hellenic Studies - Arrival of the Hildreth Meiere Mosaics

Photos: Center for Hellenic Studies


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