The backdrop for seven decades of American Legion Post 314 bar conversations debuted in its new home on Sunday.
Franz Kline’s “Lehighton,” a mural depicting his beloved hometown, was unveiled in the Allentown Art Museum in front of hundreds of spectators following a cleaning and restoration project.
The Lehighton American Legion Post 314 confirmed last year it had sold the painting to the museum in the hopes of having it preserved for future generations.
“Already this afternoon there has been a number of people at the painting pointing at their houses and it’s great to see so many Lehighton people here to celebrate one of the seminal works of Franz Kline’s career,” said museum President David Mickenberg on Sunday.
After 70 years behind the bar at the Legion, the desire to move the painting and restore it was met with tremendous response given the success of the museum’s fundraising efforts.
Mickenberg said it is the first time the museum had tried a Kickstarter campaign.
“We chose a goal of $14,000 because we both thought that is what it would take and we felt it was attainable,” he said. “We were very fortunate to have 90 people contribute a total of $21,000.”
Mike Hopstock was one of the Lehighton residents finding meaningful landmarks in his family’s history.
“My dad had the Army-Navy store on South First Street,” Hopstock said, pointing toward the painting. “My current home on South Ninth Street is also on there. Franz Kline actually grew up just a few doors above me so this has a great significance for me.”
Like many of the people familiar with the painting’s home in the Legion, Hopstock was mesmerized by the restoration process.
“To get all of that smoke off of it, I think they did a great job,” he said.
The museum hired art conservator Luca Bonetti to oversee the removal of the canvas, which was originally glued onto the plaster wall behind the bar at the Legion.
“We mechanically removed the adhesive and wall plaster so it didn’t cause distortions,” Bonetti said.
“On Nov. 16, we unrolled the painting for the first time and were really pleased with how it transferred down here to Allentown. We did a surface cleaning. There were so many unknowns and this was an uncommon, tricky operation. Most of the time we put paintings on the walls. This time we took one off.”
Sunday’s unveiling brought things full circle for Lehighton’s Kathy Long.
When Kline painted “Lehighton,” in 1945-46, Long’s mother was on hand to watch him do it.
Long got to watch some of the restoration process before the mural was put on display in the museum’s Trexler Gallery.
Lehighton historian Ronald Rabenold said residents both young and old are able to come together in appreciation of the art.
“Everyone wants to feel a connection to this piece,” he said. “Certain generations have heard stories about Franz Kline and they’re almost mythical like he didn’t really exist. This mural is really a manifestation of his existence for a lot of people.”
During Sunday’s program, Robert Mattison, professor of fine arts at Lafayette College, presented a slideshow on Kline.
Mattison called the painting one of Kline’s “most bucolic works.”
“Franz was intimately tied to the anthracite coal revolution,” he said. “In the mural, and in a lot of his work, you can see industry and nature meeting each other. It’s very clear what Lehighton meant to him.”
Judging by Sunday’s turnout, the lasting impact of Kline’s mural will also be clear.
“I think it’s great that the work is down here getting the attention it deserves,” Rabenold said. “It really helps Lehighton’s identity. I see it as a milestone piece that our area can really be proud of.”