The Pan Am Sky Murals
New York City's Sky Club Mural at Home in Bermuda as Son Protects his Father's Legacy
Some things in life are simply meant to be, even in the world of art. This is such story. It begins with Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American World Airways, in Hong Kong and ends with his son, Ed Trippe, in Bermuda. In between, there is the creation of an extraordinary 80-foot long mural which for 45 years adorned the entrance lobby of Pan Am's Sky Club in the Pan Am Building in New York City. In 1965, Juan Trippe and his board of directors traveled through Asia, stopping in Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon, Tokyo and Hong Kong. The latter at the time was the home of Gerard d'Alton Henderson, an internationally acclaimed muralist and painter. Mr. Henderson had painted the renowned murals of Chinese horsemen in the famed Grill Room of the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong and was a friend of the Pan Am manager for that city. As the Pan Am Board stayed at The Mandarin, a number of directors, including Juan Trippe, became interested in Mr. Henderson's work and asked to meet the artist. A meeting was arranged and Mr. Henderson, who treasures a photo of Juan Trippe and his colleagues seated on his studio sofa watching him at work on the floor of the studio, was soon commissioned to prepare sketches for a mural to go in the Sky Club on the top floor of the new Pan Am Building.
Mr. Henderson was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1928 to a Chinese mother and Irish father, which may well explain both Western and Eastern influences on his art. An accomplished violinist who eventually became first violinist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Henderson turned to art in 1955. That year, prize money from an international mural competition paid his fare to Europe and paved the way to study in Barcelona. Once in Europe, he traveled tirelessly to study medieval frescoes and forgotten civilizations, drawing upon them for his own beautiful and powerful murals found in public spaces from Hong Kong, Java and Beirut to Sydney, London and New York.
The Sky Club would be his first commission in the United States. As Mr. Henderson, now 80 years old, recounts the story, he was given a spacious studio on the 9th floor of the Pan Am Building. His studio became a way-station for notables who dined at the Sky Club, including boxer Gene Tunney, Charles Lindbergh (a Pan Am director at the time,) Samuel F. Pryor (a Pan Am executive,) Ted Scripps and many other distinguished personages.
Mr. Henderson's mural, painted in oils on canvas, depicts the various ports-of-call of the early Clipper and whaling ships that sailed the world in the mid-1800s. Its no coincidence that Juan Trippe was fascinated with Clipper ships and named his Pan Am aircraft after them. The mural begins with New York Harbor in the 1850s, Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor (1860), Canton Harbour and the Port of London (1830s), Gloucester Seaport in New England (1830), and continues to Rio de Janeiro (1850s), Constantinople (Istanbul circa 1850), and Beirut Harbour, and ends with Lahaina Maui (1860s.) Spain's foremost art critic, Juan Eduardo Cirlot, commenting on the murals said, "Henderson uses the techniques of the Western abstract, delves into the treasure chest of the Orient, and emerges with a fresh and universal vision."
An interesting side note is the inclusion of Lahaina Maui, which undoubtedly reflects Mr. Henderson's friendship with Sam Pryor, Pan Am's Senior VP Public Affairs, who managed the Sky Club development and took a special interest in Mr. Henderson and his murals. The artist was a frequent guest at Pryor's Greenwich, Connecticut home and it was through the Pan Am executive that Mr. Henderson met Gene Tunney. Both Messrs. Pryor and Lindbergh built homes in the hills above Lahaina Maui and both are buried there.
The fate of Mr. Henderson's magnificent mural was thrown into uncertainty with the closing of the Sky Club in December 2005, and the mural was put up for auction. Ed Trippe, son of Juan Trippe, eagerly placed a bid with an eye to keeping the mural commissioned by his father for Pan Am "in the family." His plan was to bring the mural to Bermuda, where he heads up the development of Tucker's Point (Bermuda's most luxurious residential and resort community). Sadly, Ed Trippe was outbid. The story, nonetheless, has a happy ending. The winning bidder withdrew, and Ed Trippe found himself with a second chance to acquire the mural which was successful in part because the Sky Club Board agreed the murals should stay in "the Pan Am family." Trippe and his team commissioned West Coast muralist Doug Bowman to weave the scenes together, as well as create an eighth mural which depicts Bermuda's Hamilton Harbour in the 1880s.
Fittingly, the murals now hang in The Point, Rosewood Tucker's Point's fine dining restaurant. The Trippe family, together with local Bermudian partners, developed the resort which opened in April 2009. In jubilant email exchanges between Ed Trippe and Gerard Henderson, who now lives in The Philippines, the artist wrote, "It is truly the wish and will of the Gods that the mural finds its rightful place with you."