Building 98 POW Murals

By: Mike Zambrano, Jr.

Type: General Entry

Published: September 2, 2020

Updated: September 2, 2020


The Building 98 prisoner-of-war (POW) murals are located at Fort D. A. Russell in Marfa, Texas, and were painted by Hans Jürgen Press and Robert Humpel, two German POWs during World War II.

In 1911 Fort D. A. Russell (originally named Camp Albert) was a U. S. Army post established to protect West Texas against incursions by Mexican forces during the Mexican Revolution. During its thirty-four-year history, it served as a base for Signal Corps biplanes and garrisoned a field artillery regiment and chemical mortar battalion. The camp expanded with the onset of World War II

In February 1943 a prisoner-of-war camp was added. For more than two years, it interned approximately 200 German POWs, most of whom were veterans of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. To avoid idle time and disciplinary problems, POWs were kept busy with agricultural work on local farms, housekeeping and maintenance duties on base, educational instruction, athletic activities, and artistic pursuits. It is possible that the mural project for Building 98 was conceived with this premise.

Built in 1920, Building 98 is a hacienda-style adobe and concrete structure that included bachelor officers’ quarters and an officers’ club. The murals were painted in two rooms that are joined by a single doorway. The Russell Room, named after Civil War general David Allen Russell, measures fifty feet by twenty feet and served as a mess hall. The adjoining room was an officers’ game room and measures twenty feet by forty feet and was added to the building in 1936.

It is unclear how Hans Jürgen Press and Robert Humpel came to work on the murals; they may have volunteered or been chosen because of their artistic abilities. Press was born in Masuria, East Prussia (modern-day Poland), on May 15, 1926. Trained as a Luftwaffe glider pilot, he was captured in Epinal, France, in 1944 and was shipped to Fort D. A. Russell. His mother was an avid painter and most likely was an artistic influence on Press. Little is known of Robert Humpel other than he was a German officer in the Afrika Korps.

Press and Humpel began work on the murals sometime in late 1944. The murals were painted in a fresco style in which a coat of wet plaster is applied to the wall and is painted while still damp. This method merges the paint into the wall as it dries. Using oil-based house paint, Press and Humpel, applied this technique on three-foot square sections of the wall at a time.

The mural in the Russell Room is reminiscent of a medieval courtyard. Each wall portrays a continuous, low, cobblestone wall. The wall supports columns and cobbled arches that frame vistas with two different and distinct landscapes. The two larger archways depict tall firs and fertile rolling hills that nestle against the jutting mountains of the Bavarian Alps. An elk stands on a rock, gazing out towards green pastures; perhaps a reminiscence home for the two artists.

The smaller archways reflect the robust landscape that surrounds Marfa. The mountains set far in the distance and its earth-toned plains sprinkled with prickly pear cactus and yucca is a strong contrast to the Alps. One vignette exhibits a lone farmhouse, outhouse, and windmill that sit at the end of a dirt road. Another details a pair of homes in the distance that almost goes unnoticed if not for a meandering road that leads towards them. A portrait of General D. A. Russell sits above the main doorway.

The officers’ game room continues with the Marfa landscape, which includes familiar scenes in the daily lives of cowboys dressed in familiar accoutrements: hats, chaps, vests, spurs, and bandanas. On one wall a horse-mounted cowboy pulls tightly on his lasso after roping a calf. Two other cowboys have wrestled it to the ground. One secures the calf with his hands and knee, while the other firmly plants the brand into the calf’s thigh, where steam is seen rising. Two other cowboys observe. One holds a lasso at the ready, while the other, possibly a foreman, stands calmly holding his pipe.

On another wall, the shadows indicate that the sun is setting just over the mountain range. A prominent mesa rises in the distance. A horse-mounted cowboy anticipating a meal trots towards the chuck wagon. The “cookie” (cowboy slang for cook) stands with his back to the viewer. He works on a board that extends from the chuck box that is full of cups, plates, and supplies. The wagon holds a fifty-gallon drum of water. A large green jug in a brown, woven basket rests next to the wagon. Steam rises from the Dutch ovens; one on the ground, another slung over an open fire. A frying pan and coffee pot lay nearby.

The third wall portrays a tanned cowboy kneeling by a stream. He takes a break from tending the herd of cattle. With one hand, he drinks from his water soaked hat; with the other, he holds his horse’s reins. Sharing in his respite, the saddled horse also drinks from the stream. Double doors take up much of the space on the fourth wall; Press and Humpel could only fill their edges with landscape.

Though the murals’ landscapes were inspired by the men’s surroundings, the inspiration for the cowboys possibly came from Western films the artists had seen in Germany as well as writings by Karl May (pronounced “my”), a German Western adventure novelist. Having written much of his work in the late nineteenth century, his novels would have been available to Press and Humpel as children.

After approximately one year and 3,048 square feet of painted wall, the murals in both rooms were completed in 1945. Press and Humpel soon began work on the walls of the ballroom, which was added to the building in 1920. They began to sketch colonnade forms. However work ceased with the end of the war. The sketches remained on the walls until 2001, when a reconstruction project forced them to be demolished. Prisoners were reassigned to other camps, and Camp Russell closed in November 1945.

In 1948 Hans Jürgen Press was repatriated to Germany. He attended Hamburg University of Applied Sciences where he studied liberal arts. In the early 1950s he began working as a cartoonist, and he authored children’s books, his most popular being The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang (1976) about a group of four children detectives who solve crimes. His books were published in more than sixty languages. On October 19, 2002, he passed away. Though Robert Humpel left his mark in the small Texas town, his fate is unknown.

In the early 2000s Building 98 became the headquarters of the International Woman’s Foundation, a nonprofit organization, who partnered with preservationists of the Texas Historical Commission to renovate the grounds as an artists retreat. The work included the restoration and preservation of the murals. Building 98 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 and that same year received a Texas Historical Marker. The Building 98 POW murals are located at 705 West Bonnie Street in Marfa, Texas. They are available for public viewing.

Mona Blocker Garcia, Executive Director, International Woman’s Foundation, Interview by Mike Zambrano, February 4, 2020. Arnold P. Krammer, "When the Afrika Korps Came to Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 80 (January 1977). Hans Jürgen Press, Random House Biography (https://www.randomhouse.de/Autor/Hans-Juergen-Press/p71693.rhd), accessed August 27, 2020. Midland ­Reporter-Telegram, February 8, 2011. Richard P. Walker, The Lone Star and the Swastika: Prisoners of War in Texas (Fort Worth: Eakin Press, 2001).

Categories:

  • Museums, Libraries, and Archives
  • Museums
  • Art Museums
  • Peoples
  • Germans
  • Visual Arts
  • Painting

Time Periods:

  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mike Zambrano, Jr., “Building 98 POW Murals,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/building-98-pow-murals.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

September 2, 2020
September 2, 2020

Loading