The Long Journey of A Rare Forest Hills Sculpture Plaque

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A New Deal Era Discovery is Made

Notable Sculptor Duane Champlain Lives on Through His Art

“History mysteries are all over the place,” said Norm Tjeltveit, a retired postal worker from Montana. One may wonder how a notable Art Deco sculpture plaque by a significant sculptor, ended up in the estate of his father, who was a postmaster, followed by his son’s closet, and has not been seen by the modern eye for several decades. This sculpture tells a story of how some works of art connect the dots between various states. 

Back in August 2018, Tjeltveit decided to remove his eBay listing for this New Deal era relic and mail it to this columnist, in affiliation with Rego-Forest Preservation Council. A plan was underway to display it within a brass showcase at the Forest Hills Post Office at 106-28 Queens Boulevard, an Art Moderne meets International style building on the National Register of Historic Places. Employees favored publicly displaying it and collaborating on a ceremony, where it would be dramatically unveiled from its crate. Then a colleague of a postmaster defeated the plan, claiming that legal matters prevented its installation. 

The bronze-colored plaster of Paris sculpture plaque was designed by the famed New Deal artist Duane Champlain II (1889 – 1964), and features a mythological-inspired figure, depictions of a planet with rays, stars, and the moon, and reads “United States Post Office – Forest Hills Station – Flushing, New York.” It is uniquely artist-signed as “D. Champlain.” 

The New Deal, enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, spanned 1933 and 1938, and consisted of public work projects, programs, and financial reforms. It was deemed to be a lustrous response to the Great Depression, enabling the Federal government to play a significant role in social and economic affairs. 

Art Deco sculpture plaque by New Deal sculptor Duane Champlain for Forest Hills Post Office’s 1938 competition

Champlain II’s sculpture plaque was one of numerous entries by sculptors residing in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut for the competition coordinated by the arts and sculpture section of the Procurement Division of The Treasury Department in 1938, to determine the winning terra-cotta relief to be mounted above the entryway on the Forest Hills Post Office facade. The post office’s architect, Lorimer Rich, was a committee member. At the time, Champlain II resided in Connecticut. Although Champlain II’s sculpture was not selected as a winner, he is a nationally recognized artist whose soul inspires and educates the public, and had other public commissions. The Forest Hills Post Office winning terra-cotta relief that residents encounter today is known as “Spirit of Communication” by sculptor Sten Jacobsson, which is similar to Champlain II’s sculpture plaque design. 

Champlain II was born in Black Mountain, North Carolina and later owned a home featuring a basement art studio in Essex, Connecticut. He was a student at the National Academy of Design, which once occupied the landmarked American Fine Arts Society building at 215 West 57th Street. In May 1913, he won a first prize award among other artists in the sculpture class for a figure.

He was a member of the National Sculpture Society and Lyme Art Association, where he exhibited. He also participated in the Panama Pacific Exhibition of 1915 and at Pennsylvania Academy.  

Champlain II designed sculptures for other Federal buildings. His submission for the Forest Hills Post Office resulted in landing an opportunity for his 1939 “Rural Delivery” bronze plaster bas-relief commission for the U.S. Post Office at 142 West Main Street in Forest City, North Carolina. It was funded by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts. “On account of the distinguished quality of their models entered in the (Forest Hills Post Office) competition, the following sculptors have been invited to submit designs for the sculpture decoration on the following buildings,” read a bulletin by the Public Buildings Administration. 

Duane Champlain II’s 1939 Rural Delivery bas relief commission for the post office in Forest City, North Carolina

Since 1978, “Rural Delivery” has been located at the Powell Street post office in Forest City. His sculpture features a child and his parents, who face a mailman accompanied by a horse as his means of transportation. The mother is believed to be carrying seeds for sowing her apron, which symbolizes Forest City’s rich landscape. Also depicted are trees with mountains, a well, a chimney, and level land to signify a harmonious relationship. “One of the ten most beautiful” is inscribed. 

In 1926, Champlain II sculpted Miss Irene Lingo in his studio at the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition grounds. This event commemorated the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. She was known as a Philadelphia dancer and nicknamed the city’s Benda Girl based on a resemblance to the heads drawn by the artist.   

Another great accomplishment is the “Christy Mathewson Memorial” bronze tablet in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which featured Mathewson’s portrait. The inscription read, “This Memorial Gateway Erected In Honor of ‘Matty’ By Professional Baseball, June 5, 1928” and “He was one of the greatest figures in competitive sport of all time.” “The splendid bronze tablet, designed by Duane Champlain, will be unveiled in the presence of Commissioner Landis, President John A. Heydler of the National League and several baseball magnates and players. Christy Mathewson’s son will do the unveiling,” read The Brooklyn Eagle on May 27, 1928. 

In 1937, Champlain II participated in the 19th exhibition of the Municipal Art Committee at 62 West 53rd Street. He, among other sculptors’ decorative works, were considered suitable for gardens. He also worked with Roman Bronze Works in Brooklyn, which was established in 1897 and made history as the first American foundry to specialize in the lost-wax casting method.

Profile sculpture of Duane Champlain IV by his grandfather, Sculptor Duane Champlain II

Duane Dolph Champlain IV (born 1944) resides with his wife in San Diego, California, and is the grandson of Duane Champlain II. He is a retired insurance salesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. He feels honored to own a few of his grandfather’s sculptures and photos. Additionally, his daughter Aurora Lyn Champlain and son Matthew Duane Champlain have taken an interest in their great-grandfather’s artwork. 

In his collection is a summer 1958 pamphlet for the 23rd Annual Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, California, which depicted Champlain II’s circa 1920s “Swan Girl,” a 35-inch graceful sculpture. Today, this event has been recognized among the top art festivals nationwide. This event features historical reenactments and artistic-inspired depictions in an amphitheater, as well as sculptures, jewelry, and paintings among all works of art imaginable. Classical and contemporary works are stunningly recreated by people through backdrops, illumination, costumes, and makeup. 

23rd Annual Festival of Arts & Pageant of the Masters in 1958 featuring Swan Girl by Sculptor Duane Champlain

This past week, a rare 10-inch by 8.5-inch welcoming Rhode Island Tercentenary cast-bronze bas relief by Champlain II appeared on eBay, and this columnist helped Champlain IV win the sculpture. It depicts Roger Williams, a Puritan minister and author who founded Providence plantations, and greeted a Narragansett Indian. It reads “1636 What Cheer Netop 1936,” and commemorated the 300thanniversary of Providence’s founding. 

Champlain IV displayed his grandfather’s works in his living room and family room. That includes the “Hoop Bowler,” a colored plaster statuette where a family member posed, the circa 1935 bronze with a dark brown patina “Lucrece” statuette, and even a portrait bas-relief of his grandson. He reminisced, “My grandfather used 8 by 10 black and white photos. I sat next to him in his studio in the boiler room in Essex, Connecticut. The back of the photo that he used is stamped September 4, 1949, so I was five years old. He sat on his stool and smoked. He had all of his sculpting tools, an easel, and artwork, and I remember him scraping the plaster of Paris.” Other works of his grandfather that are not in his collection include “Jeanne,” a colored plaster bas-relief, “Blue Dancer,” a colored plaster statuette, and the “Doughboy” bronze statue which a relative has. 

Lucrece by Sculptor Duane Champlain II, Courtesy of grandson Duane Champlain IV

“I didn’t see my grandfather very often,” said Champlain IV. “My dad (born 1916) was in the air force and stationed countrywide; Montgomery, AL and Bangor, ME, Pensacola, FL. We lived in the Huntington, Long Island Halesite and later in Phoenix, AZ. I went into the Navy and moved to San Diego in 1966.” His grandfather’s second wife did not have a healthy relationship with his father. “When he died, she immediately began selling his artwork, so she never saved anything for my dad,” continued Champlain IV.

He feels his grandfather was “fantastic” in the name of talent. “I wish I could find all of his works and bring them back to my family.” Upon learning that he designed a sculpture plaque for the Forest Hills Post Office competition, he felt overwhelmed and surprised that he was unaware of its existence. 

“I admire my grandfather and wish he was still alive. I wish that I had an opportunity to get to know him when I was a teenager, since my dad and I only saw him a few times,” said Champlain IV. 

The other piece of the story, where a mystery unfolds, can be heard through Norm Tjeltveit, a retired postal worker who lives in Billings, Montana. His parents were Alvin and Margaret Tjeltveit and resided in Red Lodge, Montana. His father was also employed by the U.S. Postal Service. When asked how Champlain II’s sculpture plaque was acquired, he responded, “I asked all of my brothers and some relatives how it came to my parents. We can guess because my maternal grandmother Catharine Hill and my grandfather John Stevenson Hill were born in Brooklyn in 1891 and 1893, and had an extended family in New York. Later in their lives, they lived in Baldwin and Garden City.” His great-grandparents also had Long Island affiliations. 

Duane Champlain IV’s grandmother Ruth Dolph Champlain with his father Daniel D. Champlain, born 1916

Tjeltveit continued, “One of my great-great-grandfathers was a printing instructor at the Ethical Culture School in New York City, and worked alongside Lewis Hine, a well-known early 20th century (muckraker) photographer who worked with child labor organizations and took black and white photos of NYC skyscrapers being built.”  

He continued, “We have a theory that one of my great-grandparents with New York connections, knew that my mom married my dad, who was working for the post office, and they bet that Alvin would like to have the sculpture, and it ended up in Red Lodge.”

“When I think about it, it’s a fascinating piece from that era, which has its own beauty and for what it was created for. I would look at it differently now than ten years ago, since we learned more about it and have questions. The fun of the story is that mystery of how it got from a competition in New York to Montana.” Tjeltveit recalls visiting the 1964-1965 World’s Fair, and feels there is a possibility of passing the Forest Hills Post Office. 

Referencing the value of preservation, he said, “I feel it’s important to know where we came from and learn from it.” For the past ten years, he pursued historic research projects near his home, such as locations of post offices and postmasters in his native town of Red Lodge. 

Tjeltveit shared his wishes for the sculpture plaque. “I am unhappy that it was not accepted for installation at the Forest Hills Post Office, but I hope it can find a permanent home, where folks can see it and enjoy it.” 

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