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Mountain Home Magazine

The People Wall—Annotated

May 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Chris Sharman

When pedestrians go past the Corning Civic Center, one of the first things they’ll notice are the larger-than-life photographs. They fill three floors of City Hall. The photos are old—vintage, maybe, or retro. The clothing and hair styles are right out of the 1970s. There are businesspeople and local leaders in three-piece suits, others in bell-bottoms. Grocers, police officers, fire fighters, and a garbage collector line the walls. In his outstretched arms, one man holds his pet boa constrictor. There are many pictures of smiling kids at play.

But who are they? And why are they on the wall? No plaques, signs, or guides identify them. Very little information was available on the People Wall. That is, until now. Corning artist and author Barbara Hall Blumer released People Wall ’76: The Mural in City Hall. She researched and wrote the book, which was published in November, 2023, through the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society.

“We saw this as a way to give back to the community,” Barbara says. “It can be magical when people get to tell their story.” And tell their stories they did. Three hundred interviews were conducted over the three years dedicated to researching and writing the book. Barbara, or “Sleuthy” as she is nicknamed, says that over 400 people contributed to the book’s success. These hours of research and interviews now identify individuals and provide details on the People Wall’s unique place in Corning’s history. Barbara explains how the original research quickly grew into a book project.

“We began to meet in early 2020, but then the covid-19 quarantine shut everything down,” she recalls. Now working largely remotely, the research effort was reliant on archives from the city of Corning and the Corning Incorporated Foundation. Newspaper archives also provided valuable information. And Barbara has long had an interest in genealogy and historical research.

“I enjoy helping people solve problems,” she says. “It’s challenging and enjoyable to figure out historical facts with limited information.” Like many, she came to the community via a position at Corning Incorporated. She is a former manager in the company’s consumer products division.

In 1976, America was celebrating its bicentennial. As communities across the country planned their unique ways of doing that, a group of Corning citizens brought forth their own ideas. It was suggested that a statue of Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, who had served in the Continental Army and became George Washington’s chief of staff, be built to mark Corning’s celebration. But, as Corning Mayor Joseph Nasser said at the time, “He never even lived here. Let’s put pictures of people on the wall.” In the end, Corning opted for photos of its own citizens over a statue of the Prussian military leader from the American Revolution, despite the county being named for him.

Though Mayor Nasser is credited with the People Wall idea, it was Tom Buechner, director of the Corning Museum of Glass, who “took it from there,” along with a group of volunteers. Urban Planning Director Jim Sheaffer and Director of the Corning Glass Works Foundation Richard Bessey also played vital roles.

Back in early 1976, a letter went out from Mayor Nasser to the Corning community. It explained the purpose and plan for creating a People Wall. The mayor relayed that the project was funded by grants and wouldn’t require local tax dollars. More importantly, he wrote, “…what better way to show the true character of our city than through its people!”

The mayor wrote that photographer Elliott Erwitt would be directing the project. In a New York Times article, Mayor Nasser credited Tom Buechner with bringing Erwitt to the project. As a photographer, Erwitt was “at the top of his game” in 1976. He had an eye for the unique, and had photographed not only the rich and famous, including Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, and Richard Nixon, but regular people who were neither rich nor famous. Many of those receiving the letter should expect a phone call asking to be photographed, the mayor said. He made it clear that there would not be space for everyone, but that the plan was to have a representative group of Corning’s citizens to be photographed. Volunteers then made the phone calls to people across the city.

Art murals are common on and in public buildings, but are typically paintings, often having a historical theme. The Corning post office has a painted mural about glassmaking, from 1973. The post office in Painted Post has its own historical landscape scene. But for its time, and even for today, it is innovative to have large scale photos in a public space.

Erwitt arranged the photoshoot over five days in March of 1976. Barbara notes that over 350 people were photographed, and over 3,000 images were generated by the photographer and his team. Of these, 150 people and pets can be seen on the People Wall today.

After Erwitt captured the images, they were printed on large format cloth panels called Scanachromes. The normal enlargement size at that time was only 8” by 10”—and on paper. It’s remarkable to think that Erwitt’s images were captured on 4” by 5” film, and then enlarged to 4’ by 10’ colored cloth prints. The images remained in place until 2003, when they were removed to be digitized and then replaced. What we see now are the same people and in the same locations, with improved color.

While People Wall ’76: The Mural in City Hall has great background on the People Wall, the development of Nasser Civic Center, and historical context about the country’s bicentennial, its greatest value is as a guide book—a people guide book. Open to any page and you can not only identify the person on the wall, but you can learn what they were doing in 1976. Many of those photographed for the People Wall have passed away, many have moved away, but others are still a part of the community.

On page forty-four, for instance, there’s a picture of barber Lew Potter alongside hair stylist AJ Fratercangelo. Lew is conservatively dressed as a barber, with a shirt and tie and polished dress shoes. He holds a pair of scissors in one hand and a black plastic comb in the other. By contrast, AJ has longer hair, an open collar, and sports platform shoes under his blue corduroy suit. He’s holding a bright yellow hair dryer. Lew passed away in 1994. AJ is still styling hair in his shop on Market Street after forty-eight years.

“I was about twenty-three when that photo was taken,” AJ says. “At that time, I was cutting Clare Bavis’ hair, and she told me to go home, pick out an outfit, and get my photo taken.” Clare managed communications for Corning Glass and was among the organizers of the 1976 project.

And what about the dogs and cats on the People Wall? The same thorough research and attention to detail was used to identify them as well. Clues fell into place when Barbara looked through the original photo appointment book. From there she contacted the pets’ original owners, or their surviving relatives, to identify them. She posted other images to Facebook and some information fell into place by coincidence. Despite this, “we still don't know who the black poodle is,” she says. “The name Gabby is what they had next to the photo, but that's the only clue we have.”

The history of downtown Corning is one of determination. The city had begun urban renewal projects prior to the flood of 1972, but, as has been pointed out since, the flood of ’72 did urban renewal’s work in just five days. The new Corning City Hall was completed in 1974. The library was added on a year later. A skating rink was added in 1976. The newly built civic center was then dedicated to Mayor Nasser on June 5, 1976.

“The People Wall is another example of the unique character and cherished public art in Corning,” says Coleen Fabrizi, executive director of Corning’s Gaffer District. “The book is a wonderful way to share the story of the wall with future generations, so they will understand the importance of art in preserving our city’s heritage.”

People Wall ’76: The Mural in City Hall is available to order through the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society. Phone (607) 937-5281 or email [email protected]. All proceeds benefit the CPPHS in their effort to preserve local history.

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