Fort Scott Kansas is home to a little known national art treasure. Tucked away in the decommissioned federal courtroom on the second floor of the post office is a mural by Oscar E Berninghaus titled “Border Gateways.”
Berninghaus was born in 1874 in St. Louis. Self-taught, he sketched the St. Louis waterfront where tales from trappers and cowboys sparked a fascination with the old west. Best known for his work with the Taos Society of Artists, he also competed for commissions to decorate public buildings. In 1937, he won the commission for the Fort Scott Kansas federal court mural.
Often misidentified as “WPA art,” the post office and courtroom murals were commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts. “The Section,” as it was commonly called, was a project of the Treasury Department. The Section’s main function was to enhance public spaces with high quality works of art. Unlike WPA projects, artists were not chosen on the basis of need, but through nationwide competitions. There are 22 intact Section paintings and murals in Kansas.
The Fort Scott mural is in excellent condition – the colors clean and vibrant. It is hard to explain how big this painting is. My estimate was 24 feet by 8 feet. While not open to the public, post office personnel will proudly show it upon request. The post office is located at 120 South National Avenue in Fort Scott Kansas. You can call ahead and ask about a viewing at (620) 223-1410.
I sincerely thank Todd McDermed, Supervisor of Customer Services, and Postmaster Robert Vacca for the chance to view this hidden treasure of Kansas.