A mural to the past

BY SAM CAPUANO
sam@theballstonjournal.com

One of the most positive local developments in recent years has been the many investors who have purchased existing businesses and/or structures in the Ballston Spa Business District and made a concerted effort to improve the properties. But while these improvements have clearly benefited many, at times there has perhaps been a piece of history at risk of being lost forever with the improvements.

In some cases, however, the link to the past is not only remembered, it is embraced. Such is the case of the recent goings on at Cunningham’s Laundromat. Since buying the business in 2003, Dave and Karen Avenarius have made made the location, which also has an ice business and three-bay auto repair center, much cleaner and more efficient. But with 2012 being the 75th anniversary of the Cunninghams’ original ownership they felt it was time to honor the past as well.

And with the completion of a mural last week painted by local artist Cathryn Hunt, anyone inside the laundromat will be reminded of this going forward.

I met up with the Cathryn, Dave and Karen last week to discuss the project, and I got the lasting impression they all share a passion for history. Hunt especially noted how much she had learned about Ballston Spa’s past.

The owners felt they owed it to the Cunninghams and to the Village to pay homage in the 75th year. “We wanted to show everyone what the Cunninghams were all about,” Dave said. To do so, they commissioned Hunt to paint a mural of the business as it looked in the middle part of the last century, and to include founders Ross and Lyall Cunningham.

As with seemingly anything historical in Ballston Spa, John Cromie and the late, legendary Chris Morley were consulted about the Cunninghams’ time as local business owners. Morley especially was a wealth of information, digging up goodies from days gone by. Family descendants, such as Ross Cunningham’s septuagenarian daughter in Virginia, also chipped in with some knowledge.

Hunt used this information along with her own research of vehicles of the period. “I tried to make it so car buffs would appreciate the accuracy,” she said. She also used her knowledge of art history (she is an art teacher in the Schenectady School District) for the feel of the era, with a nod to to Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawk” painting from 1942.

It appears everyone got the result they wanted. Hunt showed me the mural last week, and it is impressive. The colors are vibrant, and I dare say Ross and Lyall Cunningham never looked better. They are in rolled-up shirtsleeves and ties, resting on a stack of tires. Behind them are a couple of Plymouths the way they used to be made (the Cunninghams also had a Chrysler Plymouth dealership on the site), getting worked on in the bays. There are also oil cans stacked up and, according to the artist, they’re historically accurate in the style of Shell Oil from back in the day as well.

Oh, and by the way, it isn’t only murals which have made the place better. The Avenariuses have put some money in the place–new machinery, and some sprucing up, and it is clearly nicer than the laundromats I have been in. With a cool mural of its founders on the wall too.

It’s not the only mural here, either. Directly behind the Cunningham mural (which means facing the outside), Hunt also painted one of the porch of the Victorian home next door to the laundromat, also owned by the Avenariuses. It’s done in a clever manner, giving the appearance of a reflection of the house on East High Street. Like the work on the other side it’s an eye-catcher, and a positive addition to the area.

The murals, which Hunt began in January, took a little longer than planned, but neither the artist nor the current owners of Cunningham’s are complaining. Nor should they. As Dave Avenarius told me last week, the murals “(a)re a great piece of history.”

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