Rail Station Mystery

Long lost piece of Houston history resurfaces after 50 years, finds itself on Dallas auction block

Long lost piece of Houston history resurfaces after 50 years, finds itself on Dallas auction block

News_"Lost" Sam Houston mural
The 1934 mural study by painter John McQuarrie for the city's Grand Central Depot, was given to Sam Houston’s distant relatives by the former Pacific Railroad Baggage Master in 1954 and languished in obscurity for nearly six decades. The piece will be sold at Heritage Auctions in Dallas on May 5. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions
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A 1930s postcard depicting Houston's newly-built Grand Central Station, which housed John McQuarrie's mural of Sam Houston until 1960 when the rail depot was demolished. Courtesy of Houston Heritage Society
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Pete Dammon, who inheritated the painting from his father, spent years searching for the whereabouts of the original mural. A newsclipping from December, 29 1934 finally sent him on the right path. Courtesy of Pete Dammon
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Set an a large frame, Dammon's mysterious painting remains in good condition. Photo by Pete Dammon
News_"Lost" Sam Houston mural
News_Grand Central Depot_Houston_train station
News_Missing mural_News Article_Sam Houston
News_Missing mural_photo of painting_Sam Houston

After the 1960 demolition of Houston's Grand Central Station on Washington Avenue,  two theories floated around the city's preservation circles about the fate of a pair of 1934 murals by San Francisco painter John McQuarrie.

The glass-half-empty theory was relatively straightforward, claiming that the art crumbled along with the original station when it was replaced by the current U.S. Post Office building. The half-full version left room for hope with a story about the murals' safe removal and placement into storage by the National Guard . . . which promptly lost them.

"Apparently, the father hated Sam Houston because of a misunderstanding about the statesman's first marriage," Phillips laughs. "He ended up sticking the piece in the laundry room." 

Either way, the storied Depression-era murals — one of a heroic General Houston entering his eponymous city in 1837 and another depicting Stephen F. Austin and Baron de Bastrop — have been missing now for a more than half a century.

Just this past week, however, Texas' Heritage Auctions announced it unearthed a large study painting of the Sam Houston mural from a retired engineer in Louisiana named Pete Dammon. It will be auctioned in Dallas on Saturday at 11 a.m.

"He inherited the piece through his father," Atlee Phillips of Heritage Auctions tells CultureMap. "The painting was given to family in 1954 by a former Souther Pacific baggage handler who received the work from the artist himself in the '30s."

The rail worker, who lived next to the seller's brother in the San Francisco area, gave the painting to the Dammons after hearing they were distant relatives of the Houston family.

"Apparently, the father hated Sam Houston because of a misunderstanding about the statesman's first marriage," Phillips laughs. "He ended up sticking the piece in the laundry room."

The Discovery

Around 1985, Pete Dammon's mother palmed off the painting to her son, who spend years researching the mural's location with no luck. But then came the Internet.

"I got into the web in the late '90s," Dammon explains. "One day I searched for a picture of Sam Houston and there it was — the painting. My father always said the mural was in a rail station, but I could never find it. Turns out it was at the Houston Grand Central Station."

Unfortunately, the massive 17-by-16 foot mural was long gone.

"Grand Central is a perfect case of bad timing," says Douglas Weiskopf, a rail historian with the Houston Heritage Society and current candidate for state legislature. "There was a surge in rail traffic during the 1920s, but by the '50s there were only a few lines left. The station and the murals disappeared."

But the painting the mural was based on unexpectedly lives on.

"This is a piece with a tremendous amount of history," Phillips says. "McQuarrie is a known artist, but isn't particularly famous so right now we estimate the painting at about $4,000. Visually, though, it feels particularly modern to today's eyes with its rather sparse details.

"It's impossible to guess out what the market will decide on Saturday during the auction."