Saturday, February 21, 2009

Unfinished Symphony


In eighty-two we got our phones,

Just to communicate,

In eighty-four the Hayner House,

That still stands up to date

-- The 154th verse of a 190-verse poem, "Rime of the Ancient Traveler," by Jean H. Higley, dedicated to the history of Ballston Spa.


Wednesday morning.
Hud Armstrong walked out of his apartment in Saratoga Springs and hopped on bus No. 472.

He carried with him a black satchel to protect his sketchbook from the winter. It was a trip 30 years in the making.

"Someone gave me this awhile back," he said, shrugging apologetically at the gold letters emblazoned across the front of the bag that read, "Lehman Brothers."

Armstrong got off the bus in Ballston Spa and started making his way down Washington Avenue. He walked past an old factory whose red-brick fa├žade was clawed at by decaying vines, alongside the church with a towering steeple that injected the sky and past the bright, yellow single-story building fronted by a curbside sign that marks the birthplace of Abner Doubleday, born here in 1819, the founder of baseball.

He eventually made his way to The Eagle-Matt Lee Fire Company and up to an open landing on the second floor where his work waited, standing 12 feet long, 4 feet tall and marked by the blank expressions of 150 faces that have been waiting 30 years to be saved from oblivion.

On Wednesday, their day finally came.

"I started this in '78, did some preliminary colors and some sketching of the faces and such, but I never had a chance to finish it," said Armstrong, standing in front of the unfinished mural.

From the right edge of the frame, an old steamer chugs into the Ballston Spa train station, where passengers wait. It is 1907, and the Hayner House rises from the pavement of the Bath Street hill. A signature in the lower right corner is signed: J. Hudson Armstrong, March 30, 1978.

Armstrong figured he spent about 200 hours on the work, which was sketched on two pieces of masonite and fixed to a wall inside the restaurant of the old Hayner House hotel. The scene is of the early 1900s, but the half-filled in faces were sketched from Polaroids that the old hotel restaurant manager would feed Armstrong. They are of people who lived in the village in the 20th century, some still living, some who have since passed away.

The work on the mural suddenly stopped one day in 1978 when Armstrong left for Long Island for what he thought would be a start time.

"I was going to stay for a year. I ended up staying for 10 years," Armstrong said. He did some illustration work and found himself tending bar in Huntington, Long Island six days a week for a base pay of $115 and tips that would bring in more than $200 a night.

"The money was good," he said.

The Hayner House was eventually sold, and the unfinished work was removed and forgotten about for 30 years.

That was, until this week, when Armstrong returned to the work -- now mounted on the firehouse wall -- and continued the bloodline that passed through a generation, armed with his brushes and acrylic paint.

Saratoga Bureau writer Thomas Dimopoulos can be reached at tdimopoulos@poststar.com

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