Found Henderson painting spotlights Ensley’s past
Here’s a picture taken last week of the Ensley Overpass, a 1950s viaduct connecting Ensley’s 20th Street with points north and west, namely Adamsville and Birmingport. The bridge spans a railroad yard and carries a fair amount of traffic. It’s a little overgrown along the approach. And that’s about all one can see, or say, about the structure from just looking.
But that view changed last week with the recent discovery of a painting by workers renovating the landmark Ensley Bank Building for new owners Monumental Contracting.
The 4-feet X 8-feet oil painting, shown here, is signed Ernest Henderson, the late Birmingham artist, art professor, and writer, a cartoonist who published syndicated comic strips and other features in the 1920s and 30s and who for 23 years worked at The Birmingham News, finally as art director.
Erin Boyer of Monumental called the Birmingham History Center six weeks ago to ask if such a painting had value, historic or otherwise.
The answer, even without seeing it, is of course yes. Original art usually has something to say, and this painting yielded as much context about the artist, his era, and the sputtering history of Ensley renewal than it did the aging Alabama Highway 269 bridge that is its subject.
Ernest Henderson of Mountain Brook, married, with two sons, died in 1998 at age 92. Henderson graduated with Phillips High School’s first class in 1924 and attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before returning to Birmingham in 1921. From the 1920s on, he penned four syndicated features including the comic strip “Flying to Fame,” about three boys in love with aviation, that ran from 1928-1933. He later bought an art and frame company downtown, operating it as Henderson’s Fine Arts, Inc.
According to a biography provided by the News, Henderson in the early 1950s painted eight industrial murals and a history of Alabama on canvas, located in the Downtown Club and Essex House.
The artist remembered
Henderson’s signature was identified last week by his friend and protege Charles Brooks, 90, who was The Birmingham News political cartoonist from 1947-1985. Brooks took his first art class from Henderson in 1940 after graduating from Andalusia High School and coming to study at Birmingham-Southern.
Henderson worked with a signature color palette and rarely departed from it, Brooks said. The artist was also a stickler for straight lines. “He never would have made a straight light higgledy.”
Brooks said Henderson was interested in collecting and travelled frequently to Europe, buying damaged or faded paintings and repainting them for resale. At the end of his life, he donated most of his works to the Homewood Library*, Brooks said. He wasn’t surprised project developers paid Henderson–and paid him well–to paint a flattering view of a highly speculative road project. He wondered if the overpass had ever been built.
Boy was it.
Overpass dedication, a public relations frenzy
Although it’s hard to believe now, news clippings found with the painting report 20,000 onlookers were present at the March 1954 dedication. Ceremonies began with a helicopter landing on the bridge while bands played the National Anthem.
Birmingham Mayor Jimmy Morgan presided over the ceremonies with Gov. (Big) Jim Folsom (honored for being in office when the project was funded) who together snipped the ribbon with pinking shears, one story says. At that moment, the long-awaited $2 million bridge was opened, connecting “Ensley to the world.”
Henderson’s painting, including the helicopter, apparently was commissioned as part of the event. A plaque shows the painting was presented by bridge designers J. W. Goodwin Engineering.
That was 1954, and the impact of the bridge, later named after Ensley car dealership owner Don Drennen, is subject to debate. Fifty years later, in another wave of Ensley renewal, Monumental Contracting bought the 1917 building from the city for $70,000 in a package of incentives to lure new business, and spent five times that amount (probably more) in renovations.
William Robertson, president of Monumental, said the building had been idle when he purchased it, except as a storage place during two library renovations. The ground floor was filled with trash. The Henderson painting, fortunately, was found in a second floor office, relatively unharmed, where it has been underfoot at the firm for several years.
“We just recently found the time to find out more about it,” Boyer said.
[For more on the Bank of Ensley building, check out Bhamwiki by our blogger John Morse http://bhamwiki.com/w/Bank_of_Ensley]
*Homewood library is checking storage for Henderson paintings.