A mystery in Butte history took a step closer to being solved this week, thanks to an unknowing construction crew and a determined historian.
For decades, nothing has been known about Adolphe Ruegg, who painted the Rubenesque murals at the Butte-Silver Bow Courthouse of four bare-breasted Muses depicting the goddesses of philosophy, justice, geography and history.
“Now we have found out a great deal more,” said Ellen Crain, director of the Butte Public Archives.
Last week, construction crews working to renovate the nearby Thomas Block — the former Wein’s Men’s Store at 37 W. Park St. — removed a dropped ceiling and discovered a series of murals that resemble the courthouse paintings.
Local historian Mitzi Rossillon, who works at the archives, inspected the Thomas Block murals on Thursday and discovered Ruegg’s signature, which Crain immediately linked to the courthouse art, completed between 1915 and 1917.
Rossillon went to work Thursday searching through historic documents for clues about Ruegg and his life in Butte.
By Friday morning, she had uncovered much about the Swedish artist.
Born in Switzerland on Jan. 5, 1879, Ruegg sailed from Le Havre, France, on the RMS Mauretania and landed in New York on Dec. 16, 1910. He traveled to St. Paul, Minn., upon arrival and moved to Montana by 1911, living in Butte as early as 1913, the same year crews built the Thomas Block.
Ruegg worked for the Ellis Paint Co. in Butte, likely as a house painter, and Rossillon believes the unfinished overhead paintings at the Thomas Block signify an unknown event in the painter’s life.
He left Butte without finishing the Thomas Block project and moved temporarily to Salt Lake City, but returned to the Mining City in 1917. By 1920, he married a woman named Louise, and the couple moved into their own home at 1828 Grand Ave.
On Friday, Rossillon, Crain and Lee Whitney of the archives and The Montana Standard visited the Grand Avenue home where they found what’s believed to be a third Ruegg painting.
Painted on two walls in a room of the craftsman-style home, built in 1910, is a pastoral scene depicting a European-style chateau and distant mountains in what appears to be a seaside setting.
Real estate agent Angie Spolar is selling the home for her relatives, sisters Krystin and Andrea Spolar. Their mother, Penny Spolar, lived in the home in recent decades and wanted to paint over the mural, but her daughters convinced her otherwise, Angie Spolar said.
In the early 1920s, Ruegg opened his own business based from the Grand Avenue home before moving to Los Angeles in approximately 1925.
In 1956, Ruegg died in Los Angeles where he is buried, Rossillon said. He shares the same last name of prominent Swiss artists, but his relationship with them has not yet been investigated, she said.
His murals may remain in other Butte homes, Rossillon said.
Patrick Schenck, of Bozeman, who owns the Thomas Block, said Friday he plans to restore the paintings in his building, which is being renovated for future tenants.
“We’ll value as much of the history as we can,” he said. “For people who like Uptown and art, it’s just another reason for people to come up here and learn about the history.”