Penn State MarkThe Land-Grant Frescoes

Main Land Grant Frescoes panel featuring Abraham Lincoln
In Old Main
Painted by Henry Varnum Poor


Among the largest works of their kind on any campus, Penn State's Land-Grant Frescoes grace the upper walls of Old Main's lobby and pay tribute to the establishment of the University and land-grant education. The idea for a mural embodying a pictorial synthesis of Penn State’s founding and growth originated in the 1930s with three professors of art and architectural history: Harold E. Dickson, J. Burn Helme, and Francis E. Hyslop. Aided by a substantial financial contribution from the Class of 1932, the three secured the services of artist Henry Varnum Poor, creator of several murals for public buildings in Washington and widely acknowledged master of the fresco medium. The professors received permission from the Board of Trustees to locate the mural on the north wall above the staircase in the lobby of Old Main.

Poor began making sketches in September 1939 and in April 1940 began the actual painting. He worked in true fresco, painting directly on the wet plaster that was freshly applied (by his daughter Anne, who became a notable artist in her own right) each morning. The pigment thus became part of the wall itself. Poor finished the fresco on June 18, 1940, and it soon won acclaim among artists and critics nationwide.

In December 1941, the senior, junior, and sophomore classes voted to allot funds for a continuation of the mural along the east and west walls, but plans had to be held in abeyance until after World War II. Students then raised enough money to re-engage Poor, who in November 1948 returned to Old Main to undertake additional frescoes on either side of the original. Completed in June 1949, the newer portions symbolized Penn State’s post-war academic and extracurricular activities and services to the Commonwealth.

The entire mural covers more than 1,300 square feet. It endows the University with a unique and priceless work of art as well as a depiction of its history for the contemplation of generations to come.

The public is invited to view the frescoes in Old Main, on the University Park campus, during business hours (8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday) and during occasional special events.

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