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Mystery solved; Long-lost mayoral portrait found.

Byline: Nancy Sheehan

WORCESTER - It was the case of the missing mayor.

Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes has found her long-lost predecessor in the belfry of the City Hall clock tower.

A dust-covered portrait of Francis A. Harrington, mayor of Worcester in the 1890s, had been hidden there for no one knows how long. Decades, probably. One reason he was living with the pigeons was that, for a long time, no one knew he was missing.

Earlier this summer, an intern from the College of the Holy Cross, Caroline Nembhard, did a City Hall art survey and found that Harrington's portrait was the only one missing from the venerable mayoral gallery that adorns the hallways of the building.

Around the same time, Mrs. Lukes invited the city's official time keeper, John Rives, to be on "Coffee with Konnie," her cable TV show in which she interviews various Worcester notables. Mr. Rives is responsible for caring for the historic multifaced clock near the top of the tower.

Mrs. Lukes decided to interview Mr. Rives "on location," so up the tower's long, winding staircase she went with him and a camera person.

"I went up there and I saw some paintings on a landing and thought "What are those?'" Mrs. Lukes said. "But they were covered with dust and I didn't want to touch them."

When she got back down she had dust and grime along the cuffs of her pantsuit from climbing in a place the maintenance people never go.

She asked her assistant, Sarah C. Lenis, a former curator at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, to have a look in the belfry. "I said `Can you go up there and get those paintings - when you're appropriately dressed?'"

The intrepid Mrs. Lenis made the ascent soon after and brought back two paintings, both so thick with dust you couldn't see the images. With a curator's gentle touch, she slowly removed the worst of the dust, using a small soft brush, until faces appeared in each of the frames.

Ms. Nembhard's inventory had involved finding photographs of each mayor so that portraits on the City Hall walls could be identified. She had found a photograph of Harrington and at last she had a match.

The other portrait was of Eli Thayer, a U.S. representative from 1857 to 1861. The Thayer portrait has had an eye gouged out. Perhaps by the bad boy of some long-ago school group that toured City Hall? The Harrington portrait is marred by three tears along the sides.

Theresa Byington Carmichael of Carmichael Art Conservation in Bedford, a firm that has repaired many old paintings in the area, took a look at the new-found faces in Mrs. Lukes' office yesterday. She will prepare a report on how much it will cost to restore the paintings.

The gouged eye and tears may be the reason the portraits were stashed away in the first place, she said, perhaps with thought of fixing them someday. But someday never came and the paintings were forgotten, much like the times the subjects lived in.

Francis Harrington was not mayor of Worcester for very long. He served from 1890 to 1892. The population of the city was 84,655. The cost of maintaining schools with 15,484 pupils and 340 teachers was $302,026 in 1891, according to historical records.

Everything is much more expensive now, including the cost of restoring historic paintings. Mrs. Lenis has approached Harrington's descendants, the Worcester family formerly associated with the Paul Revere Life Insurance Co., about perhaps helping with the cost. They are mulling the request but an answer will have to wait until Carmichael's estimate is completed.

Mrs. Lenis has been unable to locate any of Thayer's descendants, but historical information on him abounds. During his stint in the House of Representatives, the 1840 Worcester Academy graduate was best known for his connection with the Kansas Crusade, aimed at securing the admission of Kansas to the Union as a free state. In early 1854, Thayer organized the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company to send anti-slavery settlers to Kansas, according to historical documents.

Locally, he is known for founding the Oread Institute, the first women's college in the United States. It was located on Castle Street where Castle Park is now, Mrs. Lenis said. Two graduates of the school commissioned the portrait, which was done by noted Worcester artist Emily Burling Waite.

Ms. Carmichael believes both portraits can be restored to their former glory.

"There's certainly nothing here that can't be reversed or repaired so that they can be easily hangable," she said. "We've seen much more damaged pictures than this."

Beyond the historical aspect, are they worth the effort?

"I think they're very good," she said. "They're not by old master painters by any stretch of the imagination, but they're quality portraits."



CUTLINE: Theresa Byington Carmichael, left, of Carmichael Art Conservation in Bedford, inspects a painting of Francis A. Harrington, mayor of Worcester in the 1890s, as Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes watches.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 26, 2008
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