Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Denver Nativity Scene: What grinch stole this Christmas mural?

Denver's holiday display wasn't always such an orgy of bad taste. Back in 1935, just three years after the Denver City and County Building was completed, muralist Louise Emerson Ronnebeck created a 76-foot-long Nativity painting for its pediment -- a painting that has since gone missing. What grinch stole this Christmas mural?

For perhaps no more than one season, Ronnebeck's painting was placed at the top of the building, right under where Santa and his reindeer are now poised on the roof. And Suzi Latona, the city's facilities manager, who oversees the display and keeps an inventory of its various parts -- that Santa and his increasingly decrepit reindeer, the Nativity figures, the snowmen (on ice this year) and those weird, Smurfy/Berenstein Bear-like figures in the "hoedown" scene (all of which help the city's show pass legal muster, as outlined in this Creche course in Nativity history -- didn't know of the mural's existence, much less its disappearance.

But Kaitlyn Mellini did. The assistant director of the Byers-Evans House Gallery organized Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: A New Deal Muralist in Colorado, a show that opens on December 10 and is filled with sketches and studies for many of Ronnebeck's applications for Federal Works Projects commissions in the '30s. Ronnebeck won a few of those commissions, including a mural for the Grand Junction post office -- a mural that was lost for thirty years. "Everyone had forgotten about it," Mellini says. "Ultimately it was located in New York City." It's now back in Grand Junction, although in a different spot at the post office.

Could Ronnebeck's Christmas mural still exist? Now aware of its one-time existence, Latona says she'll be looking for it. "It could be hidden in some nook and cranny," advises Mellini. "We just need an organized effort to track it down."

Or a miracle. But Christmas is the time of miracles -- and it could take one to make the Denver City and County building display look tasteful.

More from our Comment of the Day archive: "Reader: Denver's Nativity Scene looks like something from Vacation's Clark Griswold."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun