At the Teller House Hotel in Central City – Part 1 of 3
By Beth Simmons, Ph.D.
Silently she stares from the Teller House floor, a stoic princess with a varnished smile. The princess’ portrait is the most famous painting and the most often viewed in the United States. It is the most exploited and protected attraction in Central City and a major Colorado attraction. Thousands of people have gazed upon it. However, the real beauty queen of Central City has never worn a proper crown. Her likeness has, over the years, been credited to the artist’s wife, and to the famed blonde bombshell of Colorado, Elizabeth “Baby” Doe Tabor, or perhaps to Silver Dollar, Mrs. Tabor’s brunette daughter.
During the artist’s life, tourists clamored to meet the artist who created the portrait. Even Davis admitted the accounts that had been spread about regarding the painting were largely inaccurate. At one time he said, “It is just a face. If it happens to look like anyone, it is just happenstance.” He also admitted that it “was the most foolish thing I ever did. It wasn’t art, just a tourist attraction.”
The case for Elsie Mosch
Elsie Mosch was, in her sister-in-law’s Betty Mosch’s eyes, “the prettiest woman I’d ever seen.” On Thanksgiving of 1970, Betty reminisced of seeing Elsie for the first time in 1929, when Hans brought Betty home to the folks before they were married. Other family members taped the conversation.
“You had heavy dark wavy hair and you were the prettiest woman I ever saw,” Betty complimented her sister-in-law. With typical brotherly teasing, her seventy-year-old brother, Hans, wasn’t as flattering. He said to his beautiful silver-haired sister, “You were such a pretty baby; you should have stayed that way.”
Elsie’s brother and wife, gold-miner Walter and Mattie Mosch, lived a few blocks up the hill from the Teller House in Central City, Colorado. Elsie often stayed with them on visits from stints as an elevator operator in the Ernest and Cranmer building in downtown Denver. On July 2, 1936, (not in June as commonly reported) Elsie Mosch was entertaining visitors at the famous bar in the saloon at the Teller House.
According to one paper, the “night was dull.
“The few tipplers there had been at the bar and had laved their tonsils and departed before midnight. The place was closed and Central City had settled in somnolence.”
Elsie Mosch was still lounging about, when on the spur of the moment, a normally quiet, shy artist, chewing a cigar, “a little man with a pixie humor” from Denver, supposedly stomped into the bar and asked for a drink. After looking at Elsie, he discussed painting her portrait. She agreed. She didn’t ever think it would be on the floor!
The artist – Herndon Davis
The artist, Herndon Davis, became renowned as a portrait painter, with a painting of Dwight D. Eisenhower hanging in the White House and all of the popes hanging on display in Regis University in Denver to his credit. Davis’ renditions were obviously accurate, easily identifiable, often striking. There was never any mistaking whom the paintings, sometimes dramatic patriotic portraits and historical perspectives, illustrated.
Davis painted what was said to be the most powerful poster for the Community Chest, a touching picture of a hungry little girl and an empty milk bottle. He also was commissioned by the Republic of Panama to paint the likenesses of 259 Roman Catholic pontiffs to be used on stamps. The first 12 of these appeared in 1956; a collection of small paintings, each six by seven inches, and now hangs in the Hall of the Papacy at Regis University in Denver. He also painted a pictorial history map, measuring 11 feet by 17 feet for the dining room of La Caverna Hotel at Carlsbad, N.M. He rendered thirty paintings of the refinery and underground diggings of the Potash Company of America. In Denver, he painted a mural of western personalities in the Windsor Hotel and a mural for the Denver Press Club. His paintings of 160 of Denver’s historical figures on the basement wall of attorney Fred Mazzulla’s house at 1930 E. 8th Avenue became famous.
In his early career Davis illustrated for eastern newspapers like the Washington Post, New York Post, and New York Herald Tribune “in a style which, when he really rallied the effort, was remarkable; fine pen lines of superb detail.” He first came to Denver in 1920 when he served as a private from Camp Funston, Kansas, in the Army to quell the streetcar employees’ strike.
In 1936, Davis did a series of paintings in Central City for Frank White, then Publicity Director for the Central City Opera Association, during which the “Face” appeared on the floor of the Teller House. In 1937, he went to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he served as art director of a publication, El Imparcial, then later in the year, followed his mother to make Denver their permanent home.
Eventually, Davis painted a series of forty-three watercolors of Denver landmarks for the Rocky Mountain News, accompanied by text written Joseph Emerson Smith, the former editor of the Denver Post and noted historian. This series is now available online through the Denver Public Library’s Western History Photographic Collection. Another series of historical sketches is on display at Gilpin County Museum in Central City and
on the Gilpin County Historical Society’s webpage.
Davis illustrated for the Empire Magazine of the Denver Post. His line sketches decorated many children’s historical text books used in Colorado schools. His portraits of historic Colorado characters graced the pages of the Centennial Edition of the Rocky Mountain News in 1959. There were 50 pictures in the old Denver Public Library painted in 1951 and on the walls of the tearoom in the old Denver Dry Goods Company were 90 more of his portraits. After World War II, the Navy commissioned Davis to paint portraits of World War II admirals; that collection hangs in the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Davis painted two huge oil landscapes, later dubbed “The Mountains” and “The Plains,” supposedly for his ‘board and keep” in an old hotel on California Street not too long before his death. These paintings eventually found their way to the Chipman-Cunningham College for Youth at 123 South 2nd Street in Sterling, Colorado, courtesy of Dr. Robert E. Cunningham. After seeing his work, it is obvious why columnist Ernie Pyle dubbed Davis “the painter laureate of the West.”
“Davis’ painting of the Face on the Barroom Floor at Central City may turn out to be his most famous single achievement,” said one article. But it haunted him and his career. “The incident many times has been described in print, and usually inaccurately,” was the assessment made by Earl Pomeroy, Denver Post reporter, in 1956.
The “Face on the Barroom Floor” in Central City has long been shrouded with mystery, “wreathed in a cloud of legends,” probably because Davis was trying to hide his carousing from his wife, “Nita,” Edna Juanita Cotter, “a dark-eyed beauty with classic facial features,” born in Jamaica. It was also, according to friends, “the only time in Davis’ life when he created something from anger.
Timeline of the Painting
In 1936, arriving in Central City to complete a commission from the Central City Opera Association and the Teller House, thirty-four-year-old Davis was staying in the Teller House to paint a series of historical renditions at the Opera House. One rendition of the story that quotes the artist was published in 1956 when Davis had just landed the commission of watercolor portraits of the Popes on collectors’ stamps for the Republic of Panama.
Pomeroy, the News reporter, wrote,
As Davis remembers it, the night was July 2, 1936. He was living and eating in the old Teller House in Central City, in Colorado’s Little Kingdom of Gilpin. He was artist for the community’s opera festival.
The night was dull. The few tipplers there who had been at the bar had laved their tonsils and departed before midnight. The place was closed and Central City had settled into somnolence.
Not so with Davis. He was getting “only board and keep” from the Opera House Assn., but this did not forestall his nourishing of ideas.
“I really had no motive in doing it,” he says. “It was just something which came to me, shall we say, at spur of the moment.”
Anyhow, Davis enlisted services of Jimmy Libby, then a hot bellhop.
Libby got a rough brick smoothed off and washed a portion of the barroom floor.
Davis started work on the “face” – a woman’s – at a little after midnight. Other than Libby there were no spectators. The work was finished at 3 a.m.
“It is just a face,” Herndon says.” If it happens to look like someone, it is just a happenstance.
“That morning I had to get out of town. I had no leave to paint the picture, and I didn’t want to have been made to clean it up. And I was serious about that. It was the most foolish thing I ever did. It wasn’t art – just a tourist attraction.
So what has happened since? “The Face on the Barroom Floor” is one of the most exploited and protected attractions in Central City. People who have gazed upon it want to meet the artist who erected it.
Davis does not go back to Central City to look at the face. His wife, Nita, also an artist, the daughter of a British planter in Jamaica, and whom he met in Greenwich Village, never has seen it.
“In fact, I don’t think she even has ever been in Central City,” he says.
“If I painted all the angels in heaven, all the popes and great philosophers of the world,” the little guy avers, “I still would be known as the man who put “The Face on the Barroom Floor.”
Maybe he is right – locally.
But his modest, most self-deprecating of artists, rapidly is rising elsewhere to the stature he so richly deserves.
Indefatigable, and as he says, “Snowed under by the demands of other art work, he sits at easel in his little home at 1323 Kalamath St., working into the prelight hours of first robin chirps.
Davis told nothing of what surfaced, perhaps as legend, in a much later rendition of the story. Davis and Anne Evans, granddaughter of Colorado’s second territorial governor, John Evans, and an ardent supporter of the Central City Opera House, supposedly argued boisterously about the authenticity of the artist’s work.
The first mention of the painting by the media was in an article in the Rocky Mountain News on Saturday July 11, 1936.
“Teller House Gets Original ‘Face on the Floor;’ Sudden inspiration and 5 hours of Back-Breaking Artistic Toil Required” read the headline. In this article Davis was designated the “official Central City artist.”
According to this early rendition of the story,
“Davis was enjoying a gentle “snifter” the other day when he came up with a start and an idea. “I have been in thousands, yes thousands of saloons,” the genial and portly gentleman mused, but never before one with a perfect setting for the face of a beautiful lady. I wonder-”
“Without waiting for the reaction of Miss Anne Evans or others who might wish to express an opinion on the subject, Davis started to work. That was at 10 o’clock Wednesday night.” [This would place the painting done on Wednesday, July 8, 1936]
“Five hours later he rose from the Teller House floor, his back aching and his head splitting. He surveyed his work and found it good.”
“Twice life size there appeared the face of a beautiful woman, and if the famous poem was only a legend before, it is in reality now. So far as is known, the Teller House has the only bar-room in the world with “The Face Upon the Floor.”
The reporter of this deed obviously did not measure the painting. It is smaller than life size, not twice life size or, unlike its promotions, billboard in dimension.
A year later, the next News article to advertise the attraction told of the “bizarre” story of “Davis’ motive for the painting.” The article, “Face on Barroom Floor Now Central City Reality” reported how there was no model for his work. It told how Davis went to bed in the Teller House during his visit there with the poem “Face on the Barroom Floor” running through his mind.
‘He suddenly awoke from a sound sleep, remembering a dream of the lovely, haunting face of “Madeline.” Getting up at 3 a.m. he went to the barroom of the Teller House and painted the image of the face he had seen.”
The Face quickly became “one of the popular sights of the famed historic hotel.” The legend had begun.
In August of 1946, William J. Barker did a detailed biography of Herndon Davis for Rocky Mountain Life magazine. Rocky Mountain Life had commissioned Davis to do a number of illustrations. Perhaps Barker tells the truest tale. He states:
“Davis was doing a series of paintings in Central City for Frank White, then Publicity Director for the Central City Opera Association. One evening in the Ship Tavern of Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel, Davis got the idea for the “Face on the Bar-room Floor.” He asked Arthur Bizatta, at that time Teller House Manager, what he thought of it.”
“All my life I’ve heard of faces being painted on bar-room floors,” Herndon said, “but I’ve never seen one. Shall we do it?”
“Bizatta told the artist to go ahead in the Teller House Bar at his own risk. He wasn’t sure what the reaction of the Association would be.”
In the traditional tale, after Evans stormed out of the Teller House in a huff, Davis decided, on the spur of the moment, to leave his mark in a totally different place. One story tells that Joe [note the name change] Libby, the 16-year-old busboy, suggested to Davis that he
“Give them something to remember you by! A picture on the floor!”
In the Barker biography, “Herndon went up to Central and, after everyone had retired for the night, set to work. The painting was completed at 3:30 a.m. of an inky black morning.” And what was the date given? An incorrect date – June of 1936.
In another article about the Panamanian commission, Davis told the Post that he was in Central to do a series of paintings and sketches of the famous mining town, which they [the Central City Opera House Assn.] were then rejuvenating as an opera center and tourist attraction.
“I stayed at the Teller House while working up there, and the whim struck me to paint a face on the floor of the old Teller House barroom. In its mining boom heyday it was just such a floor as the ragged artist in H. Antoine D’Arcy’s famous old poem.”
“But the hotel manager and the bartender would have none of such tomfoolery. They refused me permission to paint the face. Still the idea haunted me, and in my last night in Central City I persuaded the bellboy, Jimmy Libby, to lend me a hand.”
“After midnight, when the coast was clear, we slipped down there. Jimmy held a candle for me and I painted as fast as I could. Yet it was 3 a.m. when I finished. By the dawn’s early light I lit out for Denver.”
Davis needn’t have hurried. Once he saw the picture the manager was delighted. So were the members of the Opera House Assn. So are the thousands of Central City tourists who yearly mail postcard pictures of the bar’s major attraction to relatives and friends all over the world.
In one story, Davis supposedly sent Libby for a brick to sand the floor’s surface, and then assembled his tools – oils, brushes, a case of Coca-Cola, and a fifth of Puerto Rico’s finest gold rum. “Pancho” Gates, much later, told that Davis had “a new paint box.”
According to the “brick” rendition, after the Teller House closed, Davis and Libby crept down the stairs, supplies in hand, and by candlelight, Davis scrubbed, poured himself a drink and got to work. After many sips and giggles, the portrait was complete.
It was 3:30 a.m. (In another story the painting was started at 3 a.m.) Supposedly with this painting, Davis paid for “his board and keep.” But if Davis were indeed hired by the Central City Opera Association, they would have covered his board and keep in the Teller House because the Opera Association owned it.
To be continued next week…