The mural decorating our Vermont Room is the creation of Peter Michael Gish, a Dartmouth College graduate who later attained national prominence as a mural and portrait artist. In 1950, while a student of the well-known contemporary artist Paul Sample, Mr. Gish lived here and painted the mural in exchange for his room and board. Hotel guests and community members posed as models for the work.[/templatic_dropcaps]
Through a series of allegorical depictions, the mural traces the history of Vermont. The first scene, beginning to the right of the fireplace, is one of Vermont before the arrival of Europeans. There, we find a view of the Upper Valley, with Mt. Ascutney in the background, at the point where the White and Connecticut rivers join. The mystical face in the sky represents the Iroquois who inhabited this region. The mural then traces the development of the early settlements starting with a summer tableau in which cabins and lean-tos are being built, followed by an early spring scene showing settlers arriving in sleighs loaded with provisions.
The models for the pioneer couple in the corner were Mr. Gish himself and his then sweetheart. Directly following this, the land is being cleared for planting. In this segment of the mural, note the early log cabin that, typically, has a door but no windows. The final scene of this series depicts the first birth among the new settlers.
The next portion of the mural depicts construction of the area’s first truly permanent settlements, built after the Revolutionary War. As was customary, settlers provided shelter for the livestock first. The view is from the mountain at South Royalton towards Lake Champlain.
Directly following this along to the right of the door is Mr. Gish’s representation of a typical Vermont village in the second half of the nineteenth century. This scene is actually a view of Plymouth Notch, home of President Calvin Coolidge. It is from the president’s father, Colonel John Calvin Coolidge, that the hotel takes its name.
On the last wall is a montage that includes such diverse elements as the opening of the West–Vermont’s role being depicted by the Morgan Horse–and debris from the numerous wars in which Vermont soldiers have fought.
(Also by Gish, the official portrait of Vermont Gov. Philip Hoff hangs in the State House in Montpelier, Vermont.)
The vision for enhancing the Vermont Room came from August L. Zollikofer, owner and operator of Hotel Coolidge at two different times from 1946 to 1970. His idea was initially based on the connection of the hotel to the Coolidge family name. Zollikofer’s dining patrons included many on the Dartmouth faculty, including Philosophy Professor Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy and Dartmouth Artist-in-Residence Paul Sample, Class of 1921. Huessy brought his influence to bear with his concern for spaces that speak to the community inhabiting them. Sample’s students included the promising young Gish, who also roomed and boarded at Huessy’s home, Four Wells, in Norwich, Vermont. Gish later agreed to do what became the Vermont Room Mural in trade for his room and board at Hotel Coolidge.
The Huessy and the Sample influences on Gish merge with an art form reminiscent of the public works art of the 1930s, reflective of Sample’s rise to national prominence. Huessy ignited the thinking of generations of Dartmouth students by introducing them to the William James essay titled “The Moral Equivalent of War.” It should also be noted that Gish was in no small way affected by the astounding José Clemente Orozco murals in the basement level of Dartmouth’s Baker Library. In any event, the research by the artist, then only in his early 20s, resulted in an anthology of Vermont arriving at the time of the American Civil War but concluding with an epilogue no doubt inspired by the heartbreaking death of Gish’s brother in World War II, ending just four years earlier.
Gish followed with a sequel to the Vermont Room Mural, a barn dance scene located off the main lobby. It features Gish’s adopted community, insofar as the facial images are those of the Hotel Coolidge staff in the early 1950s. Gish also helped to build the Vermont Room fireplace by collecting many of the stones required, including one trophy from Hanover’s Mink Brook region that caused his Jeep’s radiator to overheat as he hauled it back into “the Junction.” Gish worked under the guidance of local stonemason Bill Guyer, who hence had his craftsmanship publicly displayed for the community to enjoy for decades.
Gish moved on to the United States Marine Corps as an aviator and a Lt. Colonel, a professorship at Fairfield University, and also as an on-location artist for the Marines. Consequently, in 1999 on the occasion of his 50th Dartmouth reunion, he honored our Zollikofer Gallery by being the Presenting Artist in the May-June show that year. He had 25 originals from the national collection of military art brought from Washington, DC, to hang here in White River Junction, thus bringing added esteem to all artists who show at this location.