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Niagara County artist’s 1940s murals preserved at assisted-living facility

LOCKPORT – When David M. Tosetto bought the former Mount View Health Facility from Niagara County for conversion into an assisted-living facility, one of the discoveries he made in the old building was the existence of two large paintings on the wall of a first-floor conference room.

One of the murals depicted Niagara Falls, and the other showed the Erie Canal locks in downtown Lockport.

They drew the attention of workmen who carried out the project of turning the building, built as a tuberculosis sanitarium and later used as a hospital and a nursing home, into a 150-bed assisted-living facility.

“I can’t tell you how many people wanted them,” Tosetto said of the murals. But he decided to keep them, a decision that was made easier by the fact that they seemed to have been painted on the walls.

“We had them restored on the walls,” said Tosetto.

But the news last week that Tosetto had saved two murals drew attention to the fact that the same artist, a long-ago Niagara County employee named Emil Strub, painted several other murals that had been removed from the walls of Mount View’s basement auditorium years ago.

County Historian Catherine L. Emerson said workers at the nursing home drew her attention to the paintings’ existence as the closure of the facility loomed in 2007. They had been rolled up and stored under the auditorium stage for nine years, she said.

Emerson took the paintings, although she had no place to put them and no budget to restore them.

She showed off the canvases last week, in hopes that a conservator would approach the county with a plan for preserving them. The rolled-up paintings showed patches of what appeared to be dust but was really dried paint flaking off their surfaces.

“They’re really neat. They’re not Michelangelo, but they’re certainly good folk art,” Emerson said. “I get the impression he was self-taught.”

Although there are flaws – a depiction of the Falls that might not be wholly accurate, a hoe and a bench whose angles would make then unusable in real life – Strub’s work depicts Niagara County history and an idealized version of county life in a way that many viewers would find “very charming,” as Emerson put it.

Some of the murals rolled up in Emerson’s storeroom actually had been cut into sections after being peeled off the walls of Mount View. She and Deputy Historian Ronald Cary arranged them like a jigsaw puzzle on the floor of her office last week so they could be documented in photographs.

There were holes in some of them, showing where the paintings had been placed around a clock or a thermostat on the wall of the old nursing home.

“They’re in need of conservation,” Emerson said.

Meanwhile, the rediscovery of the artwork was praised by the lawmakers who decided to close the facility and eventually sell it to Tosetto, rather than accept a state commission’s recommendation that the county itself should enter the assisted-living field.

“The new operators of Mount View understand they own a piece of our county’s heritage, and this is an extremely respectful expression of that,” Legislator Anthony J. Nemi said. “This is a unique piece of history from a very different era, and I’m glad these murals are displayed so prominently.”

Strub, the man who painted and signed the murals, was a native of Germany who came to Niagara County with his family in 1883, when he was 10 years old. He was apparently a farmer.

The 1930 federal census said he lived on Brayley Road in Wilson with his wife, Sarah, but by 1940 he was living on Thrall Road in Cambria, only a few miles from Mount View, which is located on Upper Mountain Road in the Town of Lockport.

In 1939, the county constructed a five-story sanitarium there for the treatment of patients suffering from tuberculosis, a then-incurable disease. One of the earliest patients there turned out to be Sarah Strub, and her husband took a job working at the Niagara Sanitorium, as the county then preferred to spell it, in September 1939, when he was 56 years old.

Emerson said Strub worked as a “vo-tech” instructor, a vocational and technical teacher who worked with patients on some of the wide range of activities and what we would today call occupational therapy.

Among his initiatives was art. Old photos show him teaching art to patients, working on figure drawing or supervising painting.

And Strub produced the murals in the 1940s, but it’s uncertain if he did them all by himself.

“There’s no indication whether patients worked on this with him,” Cary said.

Those that are dated range from 1941, the year in which Sarah Strub died of TB, to 1944. The two restored ones in the Mount View office suite are from 1941.

Strub produced depictions of the discovery of the falls by Father Hennepin, explorer Robert LaSalle’s entrance into the Niagara River from Lake Ontario, and a two-part work on the opening of the Erie Canal: one showing the fleet of boats leaving Buffalo for New York City in 1825, the other showing them in New York Harbor.

There also are paintings of unknown women holding what presumably are examples of vegetables and fruits grown in the county. Emerson calls them “the Sun-Maid Raisin girls.”

Strub may have worked with the county’s TB patients before the five-story sanitarium was built, as there is a 1938 newsletter that talks about him leading patients on a picnic and working with them on using concrete to make sculptures. The county had a TB facility as far back as 1918.

Cary said Strub “was well-respected enough to be a judge in several art competitions around here during that time.”

Strub worked for the county until 1948, and died in 1950. He and Sarah are buried in North Ridge Cemetery in Cambria.

“This is an important bridge to our past – both our county’s and this building’s,” Tosetto said. “We realized we were in possession of something special, something important, when we discovered the murals, and we wanted to treat them with the proper respect. They represent the work of an artist, but they also represent a long-ago piece of medical history.”