The Orozco mural cycle, one of Dartmouth’s greatest treasures, has been designated a national historic landmark, one of 13 new landmarks announced March 11, 2013, by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.
Jose Clemente Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization, created between 1932 and 1934 while Orozco was in-residence at Dartmouth, challenged traditional thinking about the development of Aztec and Anglo-American civilizations in North America. The renowned Mexican muralist conceived the murals—located in Baker-Berry Library—as a representation of a North American continent characterized by the duality of indigenous and European historical experiences.
“It is gratifying that Dartmouth’s showcasing of the most significant work of Orozco’s career has been recognized as a prominent destination in telling our nation’s rich and diverse story,” said Dartmouth President Carol L. Folt. “The murals provide an unparalleled opportunity for Dartmouth students studying art, and for our community, to experience one of Mexico’s foremost artists of the early 20th century.”
Dean of Libraries Jeffrey Horrell said, “This is a wonderful opportunity for Dartmouth to be able to share the Orozco murals with the country and the world, and for Dartmouth to have this designation. I’m sure it will encourage many more visitors to Dartmouth.”
The murals join other important sites including the home of author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in Hartford, Conn.; the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where civil rights marchers were attacked in 1965 by law enforcement officers in what became known as “Bloody Sunday”; Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan Historic District, the largest of collection of buildings representing four centuries of Spanish culture; Honey Springs Battlefield in Muskogee and McIntosh Counties, Okla., scene of the largest battle in Indian Territory during the Civil War; and Yaddo, one of the country’s oldest artists’ retreats, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“From the Civil War to civil rights, to the struggles and accomplishments of women, African Americans and Latinos, these sites highlight the mosaic of our nation’s historic past,” said the National Park Service’s Jarvis. “We are proud to administer the National Historic Landmarks Program to educate and inspire Americans through their country’s rich and complex history.”
The murals are housed in the newly-named Orozco Room in the library’s ground-level reserve reading room. The mural space underwent major renovations last summer and fall, reopening in October after new lighting and comfortable seating were installed, with funding from the Manton Foundation. The project took place during Dartmouth’s yearlong arts initiative—Year of the Arts.
Orozco (1883-1949) was Dartmouth’s second artist-in-residence at a time of intense growth and activity in the institution’s art department. Art history professors Artemas Packard and Churchill Lathrop brought the prominent Mexican artist to campus to teach the art of fresco to students. During that residency, the idea for the commission of a mural was proposed, and later supported by then-Dartmouth President Ernest Martin Hopkins.
“Orozco’s work is one of the finest examples of Mexican Muralism in the United States and arguably the artist’s greatest work,” said Michael Taylor, director of the Hood Museum of Art. “Commissioning Orozco to paint this mural in Baker Library in the early 1930s represents a daring moment in Dartmouth’s history and today’s decision to designate The Epic of American Civilization as a national historic landmark will preserve this masterpiece of modern art for generations to come.”
National historic landmarks are nationally significant historic places that possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. The program, established in 1935, is administered by the National Park Service on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior. Currently there are 2,540 designated national historic landmarks.
“This is a big deal, no doubt about it,” said National Park spokesman Mike Litterst. “This is the highest distinction that a site can get from the Secretary of the Interior. There are people who make plans to go out of their way to visit national historic landmarks.”
Associate Professor of Art Mary Coffey, who last fall testified before the National Park System Advisory Board in support of the Orozco landmark designation, said Orozco’s work is “an amazing asset for students studying fresco art or public art.”
By the end of the course Coffey teaches on the murals, she says “every student is utterly enamored with these murals and they become proselytizers for Orozco … and incredibly excited about public art, and incredibly excited about these murals in particular.”
The other new landmarks are: the Camden (Maine) Amphitheatre and Public Library, one of the few public projects of Fletcher Steele, one of America’s premier practitioners of 20th-century landscape design; Camp Nelson Historic and Archeological District, Jessamine County, Ky., one of the nation’s largest Civil War recruitment and training centers for African American soldiers; Casa Dra. Concha Meléndez Ramírez, San Juan, Puerto Rico, the residence and workspace of Ramírez, a prominent literary criticism voice in the movement that shaped Puerto Rico’s 20th-century national cultural identity.
Also, the George T. Stagg Distillery, Franklin County, Ky., a rare, intact example of an operating distillery before, during, and after Prohibition; Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, N.J., which was used by a Negro League baseball team; Pear Valley, Eastville, Va., a 1740, wood-frame house that is a rare example of the distinctive form of architecture that developed in the Chesapeake Bay region; and Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Ill., which represents the visual and philosophical precepts of the turn of the century Arts and Crafts design movement.
The Year of the Arts is a celebration of the excellence of the arts at Dartmouth. Major initiatives this year include the opening of the Black Family Visual Arts Center, the 50th anniversary of the Hopkins Center for the Arts, as well as a yearlong series of interdisciplinary academic programs that explore the intersections between the arts and other disciplines.
Dartmouth has long been a leader in integrating arts into the collegiate experience: from the establishment of one of the nation’s first campus-based performing arts centers, to the commissioning of new works and artist-in-residence programs. The diverse series of arts programs and initiatives this year exemplify Dartmouth’s historic commitment and role as a model for the artistic campus of the 21st century. For more information, please visit arts.dartmouth.edu.
The Year of the Arts is made possible in part by the generous support of the Offices of the President and the Provost at Dartmouth.