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The Face on the Barroom Floor

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FaceontheBarroomFloor_1937DPLAt the Teller House Hotel in Central City – Part 3 of 3

By Beth Simmons, Ph.D.

Continued from last week, where a case is being made by Dr. Simmons that the real beauty queen of Central City and the subject of this famous painting is Elsie Mosch, not the artist’s wife, or Baby Doe Tabor, or daughter Silver Dollar Tabor.

The Saga Continues

Frank “Pancho” Gates, was, according to Axton, a “fantastic artist” who ran the stage crew at the Central City Opera House for many years. In another part of the memoirs,

“Frank and Herndon Davis, of the Denver Post, after reading “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” decided the Teller House Bar should have their own face, so in 1937, painted “THEIR” face. For years Pancho denied being a part of this.”

Again, the date is incorrect, but by 1979, Gates’ name had entered the fracas. Gates had been a stage painter and set designer at the Opera House since its refurbishing in 1932. His wife, Agnes Gates, eventually corresponding secretary of the Gilpin County Historical Society, related this version:

“It was painted there one summer evening in 1936 by two artists, Herndon Davis and Frank Gates, as they discussed methods of painting over a few beers in the bar. To illustrate their points they painted the face on the floor. Next morning they hurried back to the bar in order to remove their work done as a prank actually, but the attendant insisted they leave it, as he had already realized its appeal to the general public.”

This version flies in direct contradiction with Davis’ story of years previous, when Davis had hightailed it out of town, not wanting to get caught!

Gates’ involvement continued with his own rendition of the tale published just after his death December 1, 1998. Quoting an interview with Gates done “a few years ago,” “Pancho” remembered the painting of “The Face on the Barroom Floor.”

“Herndon Davis [Denver Post artist] had a new paint box, so the two of us got down on the floor, pretty well swacked, and we painted the damn thing. He’d paint and I’d smear or I’d paint and he’d smear. And that’s what happened.”

In her recent rendition of the story, Jan MacKell, Cripple Creek historian, has Davis working as “a carpenter at the Teller House in Central City and his employer being Anne Evans. A falling out between the two resulted in Davis’s termination. Before leaving the Teller House, Davis painted a lovely lady’s portrait on the floor. The act allegedly infuriated Anne Evans, but not enough to inspire her to remove it. In fact, the identity behind the mysterious face became quite the legend until Davis died in the 1960s. Just before his death, Davis revealed that the face was none other than his wife, Edna.”

Another recent rendition by a supposed niece of Juanita Davis, Barbara Anne Ruton, appears on the World Wide Web at http://barb.webarium.com/legend.html. In this article Mrs. Ruton asserts that Edna Juanita Cotter Davis was her father’s sister. The nine children of the family supposedly were brought up in Canada, where they went to boarding school. The article tells “it was only after her death that it became known that this was the face of Aunt Nita as a young girl. It was certainly a well-kept secret.” Some problems with this rendition are that Mrs. Ruton does not give a direct lineage to her father’s family in Canada. Edna Juanita Cotter Davis was Jamaican. Ruton also says “A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a teachers’ seminar in Denver.” If the article, put on the web between 1998 and 2002, is correct, Mrs. Ruton’s few years would have been close to thirty because Nita Davis died in 1975. A few facts hold true – that the Davis home was on Kalamath Street at the time Nita Davis died and that she was 85 when she died.

Other Possible Colorado Female fatales

A Picasa face-recognition comparison of photographs of Elsie Mosch’s facial features in photographs illustrates that Davis could indeed capture the beauty of any model. The photo of Nita Davis taken in 1937, a year after the painting was made, shows a long-faced, long-nosed, dark-eyed beauty with long black hair.

Elsie Mosch Johnson has never been considered as a possibility for the Mona Lisa of Gilpin County. When

asked why Elsie never revealed her identity, Al Mosch, her nephew, said, “Aunt Elsie probably didn’t want to offend the guy. She wouldn’t hurt anybody.” She did tell a Deputy Sheriff of Clear Creek County, Dave Ochs, before she died, who testified that she told him the tale, but he, in not realizing its significance, also dismissed it. Ochs was a dispatcher for the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Department in 2007.

Another possibility that has always been conjectured is that the face is “Baby Doe” Tabor, the famed blonde bombshell of the late 1800s. Having just died, poverty- stricken, in February of 1935, Baby Doe’s memory would have been the talk of the town. Or the face could have been “Baby Doe” and Horace Tabor’s daughter, “Silver Dollar,” whose parents’ legendary romance was immortalized in an early “talkie” named for her in

1932.

In 1945, nine years after he painted the “Face” on the floor of the bar in Central City, Davis added the likenesses of Silver Dollar Tabor between that of her mother, “Baby Doe” Tabor and her father’s first wife, Augusta Tabor, on the walls of the Bonanza Room in the Windsor House Hotel, where Horace Tabor had died. To guide him, Davis may have used a photograph of Silver Dollar taken in 1912 when she was 22 years old.

He probably modeled “Baby Doe’s” portrait after a painting or photographs in the Colorado Historical Society archives. Unlike her mother, whom Davis portrayed in her blonde hair, Silver Dollar was a curly-headed brunette, so it might be possible that the ‘Face’ could be Silver Dollar Tabor. However, in what remains of evidence of the paintings in historical photographs of the murals at the Colorado Historical Society, Silver Dollar’s lips appear to be much fuller than the Face’s. Plus, like the photograph, Davis delineated the pupil in Silver Dollar’s Eyes and her eyebrows were fuller than the Face’s.

Another possibility emerged from an article penned by Marshall Sprague in Colorado Wonderland’s souvenir edition of Central City, published in 1954. In the paragraph entitled “Tale of a Face,” Sprague states:

And then there was the odd and wonderful accident of “the Face of the Floor.” If you can recite “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” you probably know Antoine D’Arcy’s vintage ditty about the stew-bum who painted the visage of his faithless love on the barroom floor and then, “with a fearful shriek… fell across the picture – dead.”

Well, very late one night in the Teller House bar while “The Gondoliers” was on, the well-known Denver artist and newspaper man, Herndon Davis, was reciting The Face to a convivial group – including bartender Louis Spies and the lovely young sculptress, Challis Walker, who was a friend of Anne Evans. When Davis

finished the ballad, he stared a moment at Challis’ haunting dark beauty and then he was on his knees painting her face on the barroom floor.”

It is still there and probably will be forever. In the cold light of next morning, Davis tried to remove his masterpiece, but Anne Evans would not hear of it. The world, Anne said, had been crying for a real Face ever since D’Arcy wrote the ballad, and the floor of the Teller House bar was just the floor for it. And so the balladeer’s imaginary stew-bum became a historical figure in the public mind and the fame of Herndon Davis’ fascinating Face has spread across the nation. Millions of Central City visitors have not seen the inside of the Opera House, but most of them have seen The Face.

None of the details Marshall Sprague related appear in any other historic article or story. Davis himself said he did not make an attempt to remove the painting. This is the first time that Anne Evans was made out to like the painting. This is the first appearance of a bartender named Louis Spies and a sculptress named Challis Walker.

Challis Walker had been trained at the Colarossi Academy in Paris where, in October of 1933, she met Uruguay artist Juan José Calandria. They corresponded and visited each other over a period of six years. In 1940, she authored “Three and Three” a book for kids from 7 to 70, published by Coward McCain in New York. In 1941, Juan and Challis married and settled in New Orleans. Challis Walker became a well-known and respected portrait painter. She died in New Orleans in 2000.Whether she was in Central City on the night of July 8, 1936, needs to be proven. Sprague was correct in that the “Gondoliers” was the featured attraction at the Opera House that month. Its schedule started on July 18 and ran through August 8, under the direction of Frank St. Leger. So Frank “Pancho” Gates would have literally been “on the scene,” creating the artwork and sets that complemented the performance.

Another possibility came from a history of the Stegnor family. According to legend reported by Jackie Russell, Mrs. George Stegnor, Annie, was a Harvey Girl. She married George Stegnor at the Teller House, and supposedly “her face was painted on the floor of the Teller House.” Dorothy Wilkinson and Pam Hartford, Stegnor family researchers, visited the Teller House in 1992 and visited with Dorothy’s husband’s relatives who have lived there many years. They said, “The picture was painted over when a new owner bought the Teller House.” Neither newspaper reports nor literary research have ever mentioned the existence of an earlier painting of a Face.

Acclaimed portrayer Herndon Davis painted exactly what he saw. Because portraits capture the exact likeness of the model, he rarely used “artistic license.” Comparisons of photographs and the portraits he painted of the many different women suggested as models for the Face demonstrates that reporters had little regard for his artistic ability and more for their imaginative fabrications.

Although it can never be proven by newspaper reports or by the artist’s legal deposition, or by Elsie Mosch’s true story, the photographs presented show that the “Face on the Barroom Floor” is not any of the suggested famed models, but of beautiful Gilpin County native, Elsie Mosch.

The Rest of Elsie Mosch’s Life

Beautiful, wild, local Gilpin County native Elsie Mosch certainly deserves her rightful place in the legends behind the “Face on the Barroom Floor.” So many stories circulate about the Face that, as Nita Davis found, trying to dispel myths with proof may be impossible. Obviously, the reporters, writers, and historians in Denver did not have access to photographs of Elsie Mosch or the common sense to look locally for a model.

Had the famed historians and reporters who fabricated the story behind the “Face” done a little footwork and questioning along the streets of Central City, any old timer would have told them the identity of the Face. Everyone in town knew Elsie. Had they, at any time in the late 1930s through early 1950s ridden the elevator in the Ernest and Cramner Building at the corner of 17th and Curtis Streets in downtown Denver, they would have instantly recognized the living Face, Elsie Mosch, their elevator “pilot” or “operator.” Elsie lived in the Luxor Hotel at 1445 California Streets for many years. For a few years, she lived in the Drake Hotel at 1342 Glenarm. During some of that time she lived in an apartment at 628 13th Street in Denver. Often times her mother, Elizabeth Gebauer Mosch, stayed with her. They walked to the many neighboring movie theatres to pursue Mother Mosch’s passion — movies.

Hardly a stoic princess, while all the hoopla was going on during the fifties and sixties about the painting and its mysterious model, now silver-haired Elsie often chuckled about her secret. After her parents’ deaths in the 1950s, Elsie Mosch Johnson, a beauty even at the age of 74, lived in the majestic Boulder Creek glacial valley at Tolland. She died in 1979 from the aftermath of lung cancer and partial lung removal only ten miles north of her famous portrait in Central City.

A photo of the Face appeared in an article in 1967 in the Denver Post showing that the hotel’s greatest treasure was preserved, protected by a table. Today, the painting lies under glass in a roped-off box fabricated when the new, raised floor of the bar was constructed.

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