Just the wisp of curiosity can send us tumbling down the twisting rabbit hole of history. Take, for example, retired Plymouth high-tech engineer Bob Svacina.

Svacina, 72, has become an expert on Daniel Chester French, the sculptor who designed the massive marble Abe sitting in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as the golden four-horse chariot known as the “Quadriga” at the base of the State Capitol dome.

One day last year, Svacina headed to the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus to photograph French’s statue of John Sargent Pillsbury, Minnesota’s eighth governor and an important U benefactor, that sits across from Burton Hall.

Built in 1894 and faced with Greek columns, Burton Hall was one of the U’s first libraries and said to be the first building on campus not built with wood, to protect the books from fire.

“It is beautiful and I wondered what the inside looked like,” said Svacina, who entered Burton Hall, climbed some stairs, turned around and was struck by a large painting of a smoking warship. He knew the painting was special, he said, and starting taking pictures of it. A plaque identified the painter: James Kay, a distinguished Scottish artist who likely finished the painting around 1900.

Svacina grew obsessed — and worried — about the work of art.

“The painting is deteriorating,” he said. “Every time people come in or exit, the doors open to the Minnesota environment and the painting is just a few feet away.”

After noting the ship’s structure and counting three decks and 104 guns in his photos, Svacina determined the painting depicts the British battleship HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, a turning point that blunted Napoleon Bonaparte’s quest to conquer Europe. In the 1805 battle, considered one of history’s great naval clashes, British Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed by a sharpshooter; he later was memorialized with a monument in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Svacina wondered why the painting hangs in Burton Hall. The answer, he found, added an unlikely character to this story’s web of historical figures: French, Pillsbury and Kay, not to mention Napoleon and Nelson.

Rodney Wallace, the owner of the since-razed Thunderbird Hotel in Bloomington, donated Kay’s painting of the battle to the U in 1996 from his personal art collection, which was otherwise dominated by American Indian works.

Before he died three years ago, Wallace was best known for his Thunderbird, built in 1962 near Metropolitan Stadium on the Interstate 494 strip. The hotel, fronted by a totem pole and statue of an Indian chief with upraised arm, was demolished in 2016.

With peace pipes over the doors, a stuffed wolf encased in glass in the hall, teepee light fixtures, the Bow and Arrow Coffee Shop and the Pow-Wow Lounge, Thunder­bird memories still make some people cringe nearly 60 years after Wallace built it.

“Every six months or a year, someone goes into the hotel and gets offended by the [stuffed] animals or the Indian decorations,” Wallace said in 1994.

After selling the hotel in 2005 for the Mall of America’s growing footprint, Wallace donated about 40 pieces of Indian art to the Tweed Museum at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Family members said Wallace purchased the art from Indians across the country and was known for paying well. But his art and hotel were only part of his story.

Minneapolis-born in 1924, Wallace won a Purple Heart in World War II and served as an aide to Gen. George Patton. He ferried around Aquatennial royalty, volunteered for a Hennepin County rescue squad and sailed competitively in regattas on Lake Minnetonka near his home on St. Albans Bay. He schmoozed socially with Frank Sinatra and other stars he met at his hotel and owned a rare Persian cat named BeBe.

Wallace became a major donor to the U, giving millions to Gophers sports — the football practice field is named for him — and scholarships for Indian students. Twice married, his widow and son say they have no idea where he came upon Kay’s painting of the battle.

University spokeswoman Katrinna Dodge said the painting needed restoration when Wallace donated it in 1996 as part of a Burton Hall atrium renovation. It was cleaned in 2007, she said, “but given the condition of the painting, further restoration was delayed because it was too cost-prohibitive.” 

Although Wallace’s American Indian art collection was well known, he also collected European art in his home on Lake Minnetonka, according to former University of Minnesota Foundation development officer Robert Ballintine.

In the 1980s, Wallace footed the bill for a renovation of Burton Hall, Ballintine said. During a tour of the atrium, Wallace stopped in the stairwell and said: “I have just the thing for this wall.” He invited Ballintine to his Thunderbird Hotel, where the Trafalgar painting stood on a landing leading to the second floor.

“I’ve had this for years and because of its size I was limited as to where I could hang it,” Wallace told Ballintine. “Besides, it just doesn’t go with what I have going here at the Thunderbird.”

Ballintine said in a recent e-mail: “Simply put, Rod wanted the painting to have a home where it looked like it belonged. In his eyes it would enrich Burton Hall’s Atrium mightily. He was happy.”

Svacina hopes that by raising awareness of the painting, restoration funds might surface. Meanwhile, here’s a theory on why an avid Indian art collector wound up with a painting of a British warship in battle.

Wallace was known as the “Cannon Man” at the U, where for 20 years he fired a small cannon at home football games whenever the Gophers scored.

The HMS Victory had 104 guns. Maybe Rod Wallace had a big-gun fetish.

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.