The mystery of the Talbott Tower murals
By Jim Bucher
OK, you detective types out there in DCP Land, need your help. Years ago, my mom worked at Talbott Tower at First and Ludlow Streets in downtown Dayton, and on visits, I remember seeing the cool murals on the walls of the first floor.
They depict Dayton’s industrial might—the Dayton Art Institute, downtown buildings, and landmarks like The Deeds Carillon.
But I never thought much about them until a recent visit on business. Yep, they’re still there, a little weather beaten, and of course some knucklehead or heads graffitied on a portion of one.
So, did some digging, and came up empty. No plaque or sign explaining who, what, where, when, or how they got there. Nothing on the internet, zippo on Talbott’s website other than a little history of the structure.
The original three-floor structure was completed in 1938, parking garage in 1949, then about a decade later later, the tower was constructed in 1958.
Of course, the Talbott family has deep roots here. Harold Talbott was born in Dayton, lived in the family estate in Oakwood, and became the city’s first mayor. He also was the third U.S. Secretary of the Air Force. Talbott was the president of the old Platt Iron Works and friends with the Wright family (yes, those Wrights), and was a passenger on Orville Wright’s final flight in 1918, per an online bio.
But meanwhile, back to those wonderful murals.
After some more digging—because that’s what I do—and through a few connections, I came across James Steeber, a New York photographer and musician with roots in Dayton.
“My story is that I lived in Dayton from 1974–1984, with at least one school year thrown in before that and many visits thereafter,” Steeber says. “My last close relative died there last year. My mother was born and raised in Dayton, and my father—a European immigrant—met my mother there during his catering work at the Hotel Miami (later part of Rike’s legendary department store) where he, in fact, married her. Many adventures ensued after that, but we did end up settling back in Dayton, and took up photography through the DAI, eventually became a big downtown explorer, taking many pictures.”
Steeber stumbled upon the murals and snapped a few photographs.
“I always liked their WPA-style idealization of the city, as seen in 1950 when Dayton was still a powerhouse,” he adds.
Steeber says the murals should be saved or at least protected from aforementioned vandals.
“Have often thought they should be rescued and placed at either the Dayton Art Institute or in a place where they could be better admired,” he says. “Protection and restoration are essential.”
FYI: There are four murals, one of which is not quite as good as the originals, dated 1980 (no offense to the artist). The originals, though, are showing their age.
“You can see for yourself what’s happened in the ensuing time. Incidentally, there’s a cruder and more recent section added to the murals, showing just how hard it is to find top-flight artistry when you need it,” Steeber says. “What Dayton is doing with its Metro Library branches is the other side of this: first-rate commissioning and artistry.”
Steeber also points out some irony: “What’s curious is that none of the murals refer to the Talbott building. Nevertheless, these paintings show a love of city and a spirit, which is historically important.”
They are snapshots in time.
“The saga of the murals is a bit of a pity,” Steeber says. “I never understood the apathy about caring for them, but in smaller cities, there’s simply less precedence for it. I’m as much a fan of Dayton as anyone could be, but some tendencies there drive me nuts. That’s where individuality is so crucial, as is your interest in this.”
Steeber and I are on the same page.
“I wish there was more documentation I could get my hands on,” he laments, “but someone must know something more.”
OK, that’s where you detectives out there come in. Does anyone know the history of the murals? Maybe you heard a story or two or your grandparents passed down a tale.
Would love to solve this mystery. This is your assignment, super sleuths, and if you come across anything that can help, drop me a line at the contact information below.
Hopefully, it’s elementary.
Jim (Sherlock) Bucher