The Boss is Back: Restored Alexander “Boss” Shepherd Portrait Now Hangs in Wilson Building Lobby


 

An elegant portrait of Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, a key early District leader who modernized the city but was also no stranger to controversy, returned to a place of prominence when it was hung and unveiled in the Wilson Building’s lobby yesterday. Chairman Phil Mendelson spoke briefly about Shepherd and his portrait, and did the unveiling honors. The event was also attended by Councilmembers Cheh, Evans, Nadeau, Todd, and former Councilmember Jim Graham.

Shepherd was the District’s second (and last) Governor, serving from 1873 to 1874, under a system of government that was replaced by the three-commissioner model that remained in place nearly until the advent of Home Rule. During his service as Governor, and previously as de facto head of the powerful DC Board of Public Works, Shepherd built out a massive network of paved streets, sidewalks, trees, streetlights, horse-drawn streetcars, gas lines, and water mains.

Longstanding Congressional efforts in the mid-1800s to move the Nation’s Capital to a more geographically centralized location, such as St. Louis, due to the run-down condition of pre-Shepherd DC, largely evaporated due to the Boss’ modernization work. Shepherd was later run out of town when he was caught up in a series of scandals linked to his patron, President Ulysses S. Grant.

As for the painting, it was painted by renowned portraitist Henry Ulke. Ulke was born in Frankenstein, Prussia, lived in the building where President Lincoln died, and had his studio just two blocks from the Wilson Building’s current location.

The portrait of Shepherd was painted in 1871, donated to the District government in 1921, and hung in the Council Chamber for several decades through the 1960s before being removed. It was rediscovered in the basement of the Wilson (then District) Building in 1979 by former Councilmember Betty Ann Kane, who had it moved to her office. Coincidentally, the portrait returned to public view within days of the statue of Shepherd being removed from its longtime location in front of the Wilson Building (it, too, has since returned). When Councilmember Kane left office, the portrait was sent to the DC Archives, where it languished and was then resurrected and hung in former Councilmember Jim Graham’s office. Upon its subsequent removal from his office, a decision was made that the deteriorated portrait and its ornate frame should be conserved, cleaned, and restored.

Restoration of the painting was undertaken by Page Conservation (located in Ward 6) and the frame was restored by Gold Leaf Studios (located in Ward 2). During the conservation process, the frame was removed from the painting, which was in turn removed from its stretcher. Dust and grime were removed, and flaking paint was consolidated. Old wax resin and adhesive was removed, damage was mended, the painting was reinforced, the canvas re-stretched, in-painting was done, and the entire canvas was re-varnished. In regards to the frame, past low-quality fixes were removed, missing elements were cast and re-attached, and portions were re-gilded. The frame and the painting were reunited, with a museum-quality protective plexiglass between them, before the painting was hung in its new and prominent location in the first floor lobby of the Wilson Building.