A work of art and history

December 02, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Among the largest works of their kind on any campus, Penn State’s Land-Grant Frescoes grace the upper walls of Old Main’s Land-Grant Foyer and pay tribute to the founding of the University and the evolution of its land-grant mission of teaching, research and service. Covering more than 1,300 square feet, the frescoes are a treasured masterpiece of American art history.

The idea originated in the 1930s with three professors of art and architectural history: Harold E. Dickson, J. Burn Helme and Francis E. Hyslop. With the aid of a gift from the class of 1932, the trio secured the services of noted American muralist Henry Varnum Poor, creator of several murals for public buildings in Washington and widely acknowledged master of the fresco medium.

Poor worked in true fresco, painting directly on wet plaster, which was applied fresh daily by his assistant and daughter, Anne (who became a notable artist in her own right). In this way the pigments became part of the wall itself.

Poor completed the north wall in 1940. In 1941 students voted to allot funds for a continuation of the mural, but plans had to be put on hold until after World War II. Students then raised enough money to re-engage Poor, who returned in 1948 to create additional frescoes on the east and west walls. Completed in June 1949, the newer portions symbolized Penn State’s post-war academic and extracurricular activities and services to the Commonwealth.

Over the years, the frescoes suffered damage due to time and exposure to the environment. In 2014, Penn State completed a two-year frescoes restoration and preservation project. Recently the Centre County Historical Society recognized the University's efforts with the 27th annual John H. Ziegler Historic Preservation Award.

Agriculture panel seen through pillars, Old Main Frescoes

In this photograph of the Land-Grant Frescoes' agricultural panels you can see how Poor deliberately used the stately columns in Old Main's lobby to frame sections of the murals, intending them to be shifting "empty spaces" in the overall design.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives


  • Poor and his daughter, Anne, working on the Land-Grant Frescoes

    Henry Varnum Poor worked in true fresco, painting directly on the wet plaster that was freshly applied each morning by his daughter Anne (who became a notable artist in her own right). The pigment thus became part of the wall itself.

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

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Last Updated December 15, 2015