Lori Fortini has been in some truly awful houses in Harrisburg.
Animal droppings. Water damage. Actual wild animals.
That’s what you find when you’re in the business of rehabbing old houses, many of which have not been lived in—or cared for—for many years.
1908 Penn St. was like that, too.
Last year, Fortini bid on the property at the Dauphin County tax sale for her employer, WCI Partners LP, which has redeveloped large swaths of Olde Uptown, including the 1900-block of Penn Street.
This time, as she opened the front door, she discovered something shocking among the trash and ruined floorboards and squirrel nests that she expects to find.
Stepping gingerly inside, she shone a light around the living room, which had been shrouded in darkness since the previous owner locked the door and left abruptly 15 years before.
Through a haze of dust, she glimpsed splashes of color on a far wall. Bright colors, as if they were painted yesterday. Stepping closer, she saw an entire mural, figures in ecstatic motion—happy, dancing people, a celebration of life that was in profound contrast to the dank, dirt and decay of the room around her.
She then cautiously ventured upstairs and, peering into the front bedroom, saw that someone had painted a similar scene on a ceiling. There were more beautiful, vibrant works of art on a door, a doorframe, in the bathroom.
“I was stunned,” said Fortini, who, days later, giving a tour of the house, still seemed amazed by the discovery. “It’s not every day you find this.”
And so began a mystery.
I suppose that many people who buy an old house have a dream of finding some treasure inside—within a wall, beneath the floorboards. As the owner of three Victorian-era houses, I’ve had that fantasy myself, though never found much in the empty houses I bought except, once, an old, cut-glass lampshade and, another time, an ancient bottle of baby powder.
Fortini, though, was fortunate.
The previous owner had changed almost nothing about the house. In fact, he left a vast collection of his own things behind, most dingy, some decaying, not touched for more than a decade.
There was clothing, furniture, frames, a grubby suitcase, a skateboard, ledgers, a crudely installed jetted tub, a motorcycle seat, a 30-year-old Lower Dauphin football schedule among hundreds, maybe thousands, of items. Dozens of martial arts trophies lined the front window.
Fortini took it upon herself to find the prior owner, to see if he wanted any of these things before WCI started the interior demolition.
“I had tried to locate the owner to negotiate a price before the tax sale, but I wasn’t able to locate him,” she said.
Finally, she tracked him down to Enola, where he had moved many years before. Touching upon several subjects related to the house, she took the opportunity to ask about the murals.
“He said that he hadn’t done them, but they were painted by the woman he had bought the house from,” said Fortini.
Fortunately, he remembered her name.
It was the height of the Vietnam War, and Truesdale had come here to attend the trial of seven peace activists, six of them Catholic priests and nuns, accused of conspiring against the U.S. government. The case had nothing specifically to do with Harrisburg, but was assigned to the federal courthouse downtown, earning the defendants the moniker, “The Harrisburg 7.”
To the government, The Harrisburg 7 represented nothing less than a threat to national security. They were accused of, among other things, conspiring to bomb steam tunnels in Washington, raid government offices and kidnap then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.
To anti-war activists, The Harrisburg 7 trial was a trumped-up sham, a case based upon flimsy evidence, illegal government wiretaps and the paranoid fantasies of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. They flooded into the city to protest the trial, protest the war and protest the government.
Truesdale took on an added role. A courtroom illustrator for the Detroit News, she brought her talents as an artist to Harrisburg. When she wasn’t in the courtroom illustrating the trial, she joined other activists in teach-ins, forums and acts of street theater held throughout the city, turning Harrisburg from staid to colorful almost overnight.
“I ended up doing a lot of anti-war activity, as a lot of other people did at the time,” she said, speaking on the phone from her current home in Pecos, N.M.
However, there was one main difference between Truesdale and the legions of other activists who, for a short period, turned Harrisburg into a center of the anti-war movement. After the three-month trial ended, they vanished, onto the next battle in the cause. Truesdale stayed.
“I ended up making a lot of friends in Harrisburg,” she said. “There were a lot of artists already living there then.”
Life on Penn Street
1972 was a watershed year for the sleepy capital city.
The Harrisburg 7 trial ended in mid-spring, after prosecutors failed to secure any meaningful convictions in the case. The media mobs left with it. Two months later, however, they were back.
In June, an early-season tropical storm, Agnes, stalled over the northeast, dumping copious rains that led to the most severe flooding in the city’s history. Much of what is now Olde Uptown was underwater, and, after residents of the working- and middle-class community dried out, they fled en masse, taking their federal flood dollars with them.
On their way to the suburbs, they sold their Harrisburg properties for whatever they could get. A huge amount of housing hit the market, crashing prices.
Slumlords grabbed much of the bounty, but others also bought, including always-broke artists who could purchase a place for next to nothing. Truesdale paid $150 for her snug, three-story, two-bedroom house at 1908 Penn.
For 10 years, she made a life there, even raising her young daughter, Maia.
“In that era, it was a very exciting place to be,” she said. “There were a lot of artists living in Harrisburg, and there was a lot of political activity going on, both locally and nationally.”
Truesdale converted the third-floor attic into a studio, where she spent long hours working, struggling to support herself on artist’s commissions. There, she did sketches, paintings, a lot of poster work. In fact, she used several of her posters, with such titles as “Welfare Rights” and “Miami Warpath,” as a kind of wallpaper in the kitchen. Yellowed, peeling and faded, they were still hanging there 40 years later.
In the larger community, Truesdale became best known for her mural work. She led a number of projects throughout the city, often working with neighborhood children. Many of the murals focused on African-American history, including perhaps her most famous work that exists today, a towering mural, now faded, depicting the history of the Underground Railroad in central Pennsylvania. Painted in 1979, the prominent work takes up the entire side of a building near N. 6th and Maclay streets.
Other works had a more overtly religious bent, addressing the influence of the black church.
“They were themed as spirituals,” she said. “I did a whole series on the African-American spiritual experience with help of my extended family at that time.”
In all, Truesdale completed more than 35 murals in Harrisburg, including an interior work celebrating the history of the Neighborhood Center, two murals inside William Penn High School, one on the Capitol complex and another at the old Boas School.
Sadly, few remain today—painted over, torn down or locked inside inaccessible buildings.
A Movement Reborn
The murals inside the little house at 1908 Penn St. survived in near-pristine condition for two reasons.
First, they were sheltered from the elements, even escaping the water that damaged other parts of the neglected house. Secondly, the next owner let them be, and, after he locked up, everything stayed exactly as he left them, lost in time.
At this writing, both Fortini and Megan Davis—the head of a new group in Harrisburg called Sprocket MuralWorks—were hoping to save at least the large work in the living room. That mural, which shows people dancing ecstatically, is a wonderful example of Truesdale’s work: vibrant colors, a studied sense of movement, a deep spirituality.
“I’ve been in touch with people who do art restoration, and we hope to remove the mural and display it publicly,” said Davis.
Unfortunately, other art in the house probably will be lost. It may be impossible to remove the unfinished painting on the second-floor bedroom ceiling, which appropriately features angels and a god-like figure bestowing life. Another wall mural is in the bathroom, half-hidden behind wall framing from an uncompleted renovation. Truesdale’s ephemera—the fraying posters in the kitchen—may fall to pieces once anyone touches them.
“Sadly, not all artwork is savable,” said Jeff Johnson, a Harrisburg resident and professional art conservator who was brought in to see and assess the Truesdale murals. “Either because of structural or material flaws inherent to the artwork itself and how it was created, or as in the case of the 1908 Penn wall and ceiling murals, not all artwork is made to last. I think that some of the artwork painted directly on the walls of 1908 is savable, but it’s really up to the current owners of the artwork and their budget.”
The house also contains whimsical pieces, several deeply nostalgic. Truesdale’s daughter Maia features prominently in these—a little girl joyously dancing, holding balloons, praying—on walls, ceilings, doors. The most touching work may be a vertical piece of wooden molding between the living and dining rooms, where Truesdale painted a lovely sunflower reaching towards the ceiling. Green petals are marked 9½ months, 1 year, 21½ months, etc., a brightly artistic interpretation of the age-old practice of marking a child’s height against a wall.
“I did those in my spare time, just for our pleasure,” she said.
Truesdale lived a decade in the house, years she described as happy, though impoverished. She reluctantly left Harrisburg in 1982, when Maia was about 5 years old, to take a teaching position in Philadelphia so she could better support herself and her daughter.
“One thing I remember about Harrisburg was that it was very integrated and had a lot of artists,” she said. “But it was very hard to make a living.”
After 10 years in Philly, she moved to New Mexico to teach art. She since has gained a considerable reputation for her illustrations, paintings and murals, recently finishing a series on the everyday lives of women and another depicting 14th-century medieval life for St. Botolph’s Church in the United Kingdom.
Despite being 2,000 miles away, Harrisburg continues to pop into her life. She said she sometimes hears from people who remember her mural work, and she still has friends still in the area.
Then there was the time she bumped into former Mayor Stephen Reed.
It was at a market in Santa Fe, N.M., where some of her Native American students were showing and selling their art. There, she spied Reed, who was making his way through the booths. She introduced herself, they spoke, and he spent about $20 to buy one of her student’s pieces.
“A short time later, he sent me a certificate in the mail naming me an honorary citizen of Harrisburg,” she said, with a chuckle.
The recent interest in her work has rekindled memories of her time here and also left her astonished that a random event—a house bought at tax sale—led to a reporter finding her and contacting her and to an appreciation of her work by a new generation of Harrisburg artists.
Davis, in fact, would like to find funding and a location for a retrospective of Truesdale’s art—perhaps even have her participate in a new mural project in Harrisburg.
Truesdale said that she would love to come back and, if the money could be found, would even consider serving as an artist-in-residence.
“This has been a delightful surprise,” she said. “After all these years, it is very wonderful that there continues to be such interest in my work.”
Learn more about Toni Truesdale at www.tonitruesdale.com and about Sprocket MuralWorks at www.sprocketmuralworks.com.
Disclosures: Megan Davis is the creative director of TheBurg. Alex Hartzler, a principal at WCI Partners LP, is publisher of TheBurg.