Updated: Mar 9
Tucked away in Helen Hall Library’s Local History Room, is the gem of League City. The 6-by-4-foot, 123-year-old wall hanging—painted on handkerchief cotton—portrays “League City (at the age of two years) and adjoining county.” Birds-eye view of League City was envisioned and created by J.M. Mahaffey—a “house, sign, and ornamental painter and paper hanger”—in 1898.
At the turn of the 19th century, Americans were caught up in a fervor for representations of nationalistic life depicting commerce and civic pride. Although very little is known about the artist Mahaffey, it can be surmised that, he too, was swept up in the tide of pride that he depicted through the minute details in his painting. He showed a panoramic view of League City, the southern shore of Clear Lake, and the adjoining county east of the city. At the bottom of his work, he created panels depicting buildings significant to everyday life in the city: The railroad depot; the home of the proprietor of the meat market; the local newspaper; the hotel; the public school; and the dry goods, grocery, and general stores.
Specific details surrounding the painting’s provenance aren’t clear. It hung in the League City State Bank in the 1930s, disappearing in the 1940s. In 1956, two League City women, twins Verna Harris and Vera Harper, painted a copy of the "newly discovered work," which hung in City Hall. In June 2000, Caroline Atkinson d'Etchegoyen, a former resident of League City, donated the original "Birds-Eye View of League City" to Helen Hall Library. However, the fragile original was quickly deteriorating. In the summer of 2001, local history specialist, Heather Campbell, transported it to Frederick, Maryland to the nationally-renowned painting conservator, Nancy Pollak.
During the year she spent restoring the painting Nancy faced several challenges, the biggest of which was recreating the missing upper left corner of the painting, previously removed by a clean cut, almost as if it was souvenired. She extrapolated the lost section using historical maps and replaced it with a lighter synthetic fabric, creating a piece matching the aged original fabric.
Her experience, she said, “was very unique and wonderful and a pleasure.” Among Pollak’s restorations are painted flags of the Civil War and a small section of the inner liner of General George Washington’s tent at the American Revolutionary War Battle of Yorktown in 1781.
In October of 2002, Birds-Eye View came back to its birthplace and found a permanent home, ending its journey in the Helen Hall Library.
– Article written by Joyce Zongrone of The League City Historical Society