The family of Boston Police Supt. in Chief William Taylor surrounding his portrait

Kurkjian: Reuniting Portraits and Subjects, One Story at a Time

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By Stephen Kurkjian

BOSTON — Although they looked as brilliant as if they had been completed and placed in their golden frames the day before, the seven portraits had been discarded, placed in a darkened, cluttered room one floor below the old gymnasium of the Young Men’s Christian Union (YMCU) in downtown Boston.

The portraits had been done decades before by my late father, Anooshavan Kurkjian, a commercial artist, and showed seven directors and trustees of the YMCU whom he knew from his lifelong membership there and had grown to call friends. My coming upon the paintings in early 2015 now feels like I was beginning an archaeological search which would end with me uniting the men in the paintings with their families, and me with once again with my father’s gifted artistry.

My work as an investigative reporter made me perfectly suited to find out who the men were and, since presumably they were all deceased, who their next-of-kin might be.

Once the paintings had proudly hung along the second-floor corridor Union’s administrative office, reminders of the YMCU’s proud history as the oldest gymnasium in America, located in a building that had been designated as a national landmark.

But the YMCU had been failing financially for years and would soon be shuttered. It had already been sold to a new owner who intended to develop it into affordable housing and an emergency shelter for the homeless. My attention had been called to them by a friend of my father and I knew as I pulled them out of the heap of that small crowded room if I didn’t try to intervene, they might wind up getting stolen or even thrown away.

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My impulse to turn the portraits over to the families of the men was a natural one as I had just completed a book on the historic art heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and knew what the loss of those masterpieces meant to the museum, the city and the art world at large. If the YMCU which had commissioned my father to do the paintings didn’t want them anymore, they needed to be in the hands of the families of the men shown in the portraits.

Despite my good intentions, the new owners of the building balked at turning over the paintings to me in 2015. The new owners of the building, St. Francis House and the Archdiocese’s Planning office for Urban Affairs, said they wanted to hold onto the paintings so they could be hung in a “legacy room” that would be built on the first floor of the new building to honor neighborhood groups that had supported the project.

But more than two years later seeing no movement that the development was beginning, I reached out again to the non-profit developer. In late Spring, I was told that Karen LaFrazia, director of the St. Francis House, had changed her mind.

On a rainy Friday morning, I backed my car up to a rear entrance of the Union and the seven portraits, all cleaned and wrapped in protective covering, were placed into the back seat of my Camry.

“This is the right result,” wrote Stephen W. Kidder, the attorney for St. Francis House, responded.

So I began my search to find out who these seven men were.

While their loyalty to the YMCU was the reason the men had been chosen to have their portraits, I learned they shared a similar story. Like so many others in 20th-century America, most had come to America as immigrants and all had risen above their humble and diverse beginnings to find success in law, insurance, business and law enforcement.

Perhaps the most notable among them was William J. Taylor, who put off his retirement as superintendent-in-chief of the Boston Police Department in the mid-1970s, to serve as interim commissioner. On his death in 2005, then Boston Police Commissioner Kathy O’Toole said of Taylor: “He was a legend. He was beloved by people who worked with him and for him.”

My father’s story was a similar one. A survivor of the Armenian Genocide who had lost his father and brother and sister in the massacres, he had come to America with his mother and settled in Watertown in the early 1920s.

Although he may not have had the professional or financial status of the YMCU’s trustees, he did have something that set him apart – his artistic mastery. It had been recognized during his years at Watertown High, and a counselor helped him secure a scholarship to attend the Vesper George School of Art in Boston where he was drawn to portraits, water coloring and tinting.

His place of business, the Arcade Art Studio was less than a block away from the gymnasium on lower Boylston street and every Tuesday and Thursday nights, and Saturday afternoon, he would walk over to the Union to play handball, a rigorous game that required speed and agility, which he — nicknamed “Flash” in high school — excelled at, and played until he was well into his 80s.

For decades, streams of people hurrying by his studio in the basement of the Little Building to make their trolley at the Boylston Street MBTA station would slow down to see his latest works on display. Rocky Marciano, a legendary tightwad, shelled out $500 for the portrait that my father had done on his own of the heavyweight champion in the early 1960s. His portrait of Pope John Paul had hung in the windows of Jordan Marsh, the downtown department store, shortly before the Pontiff’s arrival in Boston in the late 1970s. The John F. Kennedy Library displayed his painting of the late president soon after its opening in 1979.

It’s difficult to put a dollar value on portraits that I was giving away. Since they were of friends, I am thinking my father charged the YMCU only a few hundred dollars for each portrait when he painted them in the 1970s. A closer estimate of each’s value might be $2,500, as that’s what the Massachusetts attorney general’s office paid him to paint a portrait of the late Paul McLaughlin, a state prosecutor who had been gunned down by a gang leader he was about to bring to trial in 1995.

The vividness of the portrait is stunning, and on seeing it for the first time McLaughlin’s father, Edward, a former Massachusetts lieutenant governor, was so touched by it that he asked a favor — before it was unveiled at an official ceremony at the State House, that he be allowed to take the painting home with him for the weekend.

“For the first time since Paul’s death, Ed was able to open up, and he did it by having a conversation with that painting. That’s how real it was,” Elizabeth McLaughlin, the slain prosecutor’s mother, told me at the unveiling ceremony later at the State House. The painting still hangs in the Attorney General’s office at the State House.

Although it had been 20 years ago, that testament was echoing in my ears after I took possession of the seven portraits and set out on my mission to get them in the hands of the families of the men shown. Even for me, a lifelong investigative reporter, it was not a simple task but with the assistance of two of my father’s old friends who had also been members of the Y, I learned the identities of the seven. Lisa Tuite, The Globe’s chief librarian whose research skills are legendary, was able to find obituaries on most and from there I connected with the next of kin.

So far, I have returned three of the portraits, and am busy in tracking down the kin of the other four.

From the responses of the first two families I connected with, I knew that my impulse in getting the portraits into the hands of the kin of them men shown in the portraits had been the right one.

“It’s like I am getting my father home,” said Myrel Fishman of Chestnut Hill, when I turned the portrait of her father, Samuel J. Raphel, over to her. “After all these years, my father is coming home.”

Fishman had seen the painting once before when it was unveiled at the museum in 1971, several months after his death at age 64. A lawyer in Boston, who had grown up in Dorchester, Rachel had been a member of the YMCU for more than a quarter of a century and delighted in playing handball.

Sheldon Schwartz, who owns a leather goods store in Provincetown, was similarly thrilled to learn that the portrait of his grandfather, John Greenberg, would be given to his family. Schwartz and his brothers had seen the paintings on several occasions decades ago when their grandfather, a Jewish émigré from Lithuania who rose to become a successful leather merchant, would bring them into the YMCU for a workout.

After Greenberg’s death in 1963, Schwartz said he and his brothers called and visited the YMCU several times over the last 20 years to see if they could purchase the portrait but were told every time that the painting had disappeared.

“He was our family patriarch and this captures him so perfectly,” Schwartz said of portrait. “It’s our family’s heirloom and I think will be visiting many of our homes in the years to come.”

(Stephen Kurkjian is a retired reporter and editor for The Boston Globe and a founding member of The Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team. He shared in three Pulitzer Prizes as a member and editor of the team. Kurkjian has written extensively on the Armenian Genocide and is a board member of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research. This story originally appeared on WCVB, Channel 5.)