Lowell Ludford can still see himself as a schoolboy at Thomas Lowry Elementary in northeast Minneapolis, gazing at the canvases in heavy oak frames that graced every wall.

Thanks to a donation from Lowry’s widow, the school opened a century ago with a veritable gallery of 226 high-quality reproductions of popular paintings and large format photographs of cathedrals and monumental statues. Beatrice Lowry thought images of sylvan landscapes, haloed saints, architectural marvels and America’s founding fathers would enrich the minds of youths, and for generations it seems she was right.

The school was torn down in 1978, and now Ludford is a white-haired retired PR guy in his 80s. He knows he can never reclaim his youth in northeast, but he’s still bothered by an unanswered question:

What happened to the 226 artworks?

So in October, Ludford wrote a letter to the Minneapolis Schools Interim Superintendent Michael Goar. “Although many years have passed, it still is a question that lingers in the community and requires an answer. It is not a small matter.”

The letter must have felt like a colossal non sequitur for a district struggling to educate and graduate its students, one whose board members cannot decide who should run it.

Nevertheless, Ludford’s quest speaks to the belief that if something that important was lost, there must be a record somewhere that explains what happened.

“We knew it was special,” Ludford said about the artwork in his elementary school. “I don’t think we knew how special it was.”

The district, though, found the donation worthy of a grand opening ceremony in March 1916. The Rev. Marion Shutter delivered a speech, 8-year-old Donald Gray accepted 16 silk flags on the school’s behalf and a quartet from South High School sang to the crowd.

By that time, Mrs. Lowry, whose husband was best known for establishing the Twin Cities’ streetcar network, had passed on. Yet the dedication described her gift as serving as “an ever open book for the children of this school and community, the influence of which she believed would be to reproduce beauty in the lives of the boys and girls and so form a real contribution to the higher life of Minneapolis.”

Raphael’s Renaissance masterpiece, “Sistine Madonna,” gazed at first-graders in Room 103. Fifth-graders in room 205 studied with “Whistler’s Mother.” A photo of Amiens Cathedral, a Gothic landmark, was so big that the school mounted it in a stairwell.

“To see a church of this size was unimaginable,” Ludford said.

What was innovative in 1916 had become merely outdated by the 1960s. Ludford’s uncle was principal from 1967 to 1973, and one summer during that period, the paintings disappeared from the school.

More ceremony accompanied the school’s closing in 1978, and while they couldn’t save Lowry Elementary, two parents put out a written plea for the paintings: “Wanted!!!! Where are they now????”

No one answered.

Ludford still meets with other Lowry classmates, and they often talk about the artwork. While doing some genealogy work at the Minnesota Historical Society, he came across a scrapbook from the school’s closing. That reignited his interest, and prompted him to write his letter to the district.

In the letter, Ludford suggested enlisting detectives from the Minneapolis Police Department or Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, if the school district couldn’t solve the mystery.

To date, he has received no response. Given what’s going on at the district, it would not have surprised me if the letter was consigned to the round file.

But his letter did trigger a flurry of e-mails among district officials and Peg Carlson, a former district employee who has worked hard to preserve the history of Minneapolis Public Schools. “I’ve done a lot of research on these paintings and I just don’t know what happened to them,” she wrote me in an e-mail.

They could have been dispersed to different schools and district offices. Battered by time and generations of students, they could have been tossed in the trash.

Ludford never expected the paintings to be discovered intact. But the clue to their fate may yet exist in old records of work orders, which the district may have preserved in one of its warehouses.

As long as he keeps looking, Ludford can keep alive Beatrice Lowry’s unusual legacy, still inspiring students a century later.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.