- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - When the series of murals painted for the Clarke Hotel more than 100 years ago were restored in 1988 by area artists prior to its reopening as the Kensington Assisted Living facility, the identity of the artist who painted them had been somewhat obscured. Until now.

Located in the Grille Room of the former hotel, the murals depicting a 17th-century bar scene in Italy still adorn the same walls at the Kensington today, leaving a lasting impression on both residents and guests who visit the historic building.

Period articles published in the Hastings Tribune about the murals indicate they were commissioned to be featured “in such a way as to make it (the hotel) a lasting talking point,” according to language found in the contract of the decorating company. True to that end, the murals continue to capture the imagination of visitors who frequent the building today.

“Whenever I do tours, people are always curious about the history of the paintings,” Wendy Buhr, transition coordinator at the Kensington, told the Tribune (http://bit.ly/1iACYO3). “It’s just something that you don’t see anywhere else.

“I’m just thankful somebody didn’t paint over it or tear it down. There was probably a lot of discussions whether to keep it or not because it was in such bad shape. Luckily, when the company bought the building they put the money in to restore it.”

The artwork has been viewed and studied for its historical and artistic value for years by area students. It also has been the featured backdrop of countless photos, including wedding and prom photos.

The murals are the work of Signor Aniello A. Aprea of Minneapolis, an Italian-born artist who reportedly also was on hand to help decorate the ballroom in the hotel annex in 1916.

Aprea, a member of the Royal Italian Academy of Arts, titled his mural collection “Wine, Woman, and Song.” He is believed to have included himself in at least seven instances in the work, including one scene in which he appears as twins in a mural on the west wall.

The twice-signed mural collection depicts life-sized tavern scenes with men in tights courting young women or being attentive to alluring barmaids.

The murals were restored by Hastings artist LaDell Stonecipher and Grand Island artist Hal Holoun in 1988. Their effort was said to be the second-largest of its kind in state history at the time - second only to a Nebraska State Capitol restoration project completed years earlier.

Because the mural artist is identified only by his first initial and last name, confusion arose through the years as to his true identity. In articles about the murals written during the restoration process, the artist is identified as Giuseppe Aprea (1876-1947), another well-known and highly distinguished Italian artist who was active during this period.

When Niki Patton of Vineyard Haven, Mass., granddaughter of Giuseppe Aprea, called the Kensington sometime around 2007 to inquire about the paintings, some - including Patton - became convinced the murals may have been painted by him.

Patton even went so far as to indicate that one of the subjects in the mural resembled her grandfather. But in a telephone conversation last week, she said that upon further review and consultation with other family members, she now is convinced the murals are not his work.

“It’s not a style he painted,” she said.

Giuseppe Aprea is not known ever to have lived in Minnesota, nor to have worked from there.

An Internet search for muralists named A. Aprea in Minnesota turned up a recent exhibition of works by Aniello A. Aprea (1875-1954) on display at the Hennepin History Museum in Minneapolis.

Aniello Aprea, the father of four sons, was a native of Sorrento, Italy. He came to the U.S. in 1901 and moved to Minneapolis in 1911 to accept a position with the William A. French Co., an upscale decorating and furniture-making firm. His work included painting giant murals inside homes and businesses in a six-state area that included Nebraska.

The paintings in the Hennepin exhibit belong to Mary Luise Aprea, granddaughter of the late artist. They are managed by Gary Newman of Minnesota, a distant relative.

After viewing photos of the Kensington murals, Newman said he is certain they were done by Aniello A. Aprea.

“Oh yeah, that’s him,” he said excitedly upon viewing the images.

Consistent with the earliest Tribune narrative, Aniello Aprea began working in Minneapolis for a decorating firm in 1911. According to a Star Tribune article, his work included murals, decorative paintings and furniture design for wealthy clients.

Around the same time the Clarke Hotel murals were commissioned, another mural of unknown content was ordered by A.H. Jones, a local car dealer, who was known to frequent the Clarke Hotel for lunch. Jones is believed to have hired Aprea to paint that mural at Jones’ then newly built home at 1114 N. Denver Ave.

Tam Sears Pauley, the third and current owner of the home, said the mural was taken down sometime in the 1950s by second owner Elmer Glenn, a local surgeon, during the home’s remodeling, along with a number of distinctive light fixtures. It is unclear as to what became of it, Sears Pauley said.

“I would love to have had it,” she said. “Just looking at those walls now, there’s just enough texture left to tease me.”

Among Aniello Aprea’s most viewed works were murals of his hometown, Naples, and Pompeii, Italy, painted for the Cafe di Napoli in Minneapolis in 1938. That restaurant closed in 2005.

Aniello Aprea’s work in Minneapolis included murals on the ceiling of St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral and walls of the Pantages Theatre. He remained active with the French Company for many years and continued painting beyond retirement from his own home studio until just two years before his death in Minneapolis at age 79 in 1954.

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Information from: Hastings Tribune, http://www.hastingstribune.com

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