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Thanksgiving Homecoming in Historic Fort Lee

A restored "Historic Fort Lee" painting will be dedicated at the Fort Lee Public Library on Saturday at 12 p.m.

The Ortlip family of artists are among many artists who called Fort Lee their home from the 19th through the 20th century. As hard as it may seem to believe today, back in the post-Civil War era through the early part of the 20th century, Fort Lee was a resort community with lavish hotels atop the Palisades. 

Here many artists ventured to capture on canvas the wonderful views of the Hudson River atop the bluffs of Fort Lee’s Palisades. Many artists associated with the famous Ashcan School of the early 20th century created their art in Fort Lee.

It was a realist artistic movement made up of eight members, including John French Sloan and Edward Hopper. Other artists of note to work and live in Fort Lee were George Overbury Hart, better known today as Pop Hart. During the first two decades of the 20th century, Hart was also a central figure in the Fort Lee, New Jersey artists' colony and counted among his close friends such important artists as Jules Pascin, Walt Kuhn, Edward Hopper and Arthur B. Davies. During this time Hart also associated with different members of the New York Social Realist group of artists, including John French Sloan.

Recently Fort Lee (Coytesville) born artist Tom Austin said that legendary artist Norman Rockwell rented a small cottage in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee for a period in the early 20th century. That would make sense since not only did these great American artists work in Fort Lee, they also met and spoke of their art with each other while in our borough.

This brings us to the Ortlip family of artists who lived in three separate homes and studios in Fort Lee for most of the 20th century. They first took occupancy of the old Castle, a gothic Victorian below Main Street, as Hudson Terrace becomes River Road in Fort Lee. 

The remnants of the Castle walls can still be seen as you head toward River Road. The patriarch of the family, artist Willard Ortlip, moved the family next to their cliff-top studio above Old Palisade Road, where the Ortlips lived and worked through the early 1970s. 

Willard’s son, Paul Ortlip, worked on many of his paintings in this studio. When their neighborhood was slated for high-rise development in the early 1970s, Paul took apart the studio, stone-by-stone, and reassembled it behind a house he purchased on Bigler Street on the corner of Main Street. Paul opened the studio in the early 1970s and worked there through the 1980s. 

Paul, his father, Willard, and other family members created much of the art work that is on display in the Fort Lee Municipal Building (Borough Hall), Fort Lee Fire Companies #1 and #3, the Fort Lee Historic Park, the Fort Lee Museum and the Fort Lee Public Library. 

Paul, who died in 2008, was present in Fort Lee, a few years prior to his passing, for the first borough-wide Ortlip family art exhibit. The Fort Lee Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs and the Fort Lee Historical Society organized the exhibit with Paul and his family, including daughter Michele and son-in-law Josh Sommers.

The venues included the Fort Lee Library, the Fort Lee Museum and the Fort Lee VFW. Paul participated in an historic jitney tour during which the public was able to see all of the public locations of the Ortlip paintings in Fort Lee, including the wonderful Paul Ortlip mural in Fire House #1 on Main Street, which depicts the history of this truly historic Fort Lee Fire Company. 

Paul also restored a painting of his father's, Washington at Fort Lee (1926), and that painting now sits behind the mayor’s chair in Borough Hall's Council Chambers – this wonderful historic painting of Fort Lee is visible during the televised meetings of the Fort Lee Mayor and Council. 

During this visit, Paul saw one of his works, Historic Fort Lee (1970), on display in the Fort Lee Public Library. Fort Lee realtor Arthur Bruni commissioned the 10-by-10-foot oil on canvas, and it hung in Bruni’s Main Street office until he closed it in the 1980s. 

Bruni donated the painting to the Fort Lee Public Library. Unfortunately, the painting was hung in a smaller space on the library meeting room wall. The painting was folded over and stapled and nailed to the wall, and over the years, it sustained additional damage because items such as a piano and chairs were stored on the unprotected face of the painting. 

A little over a year ago, the Fort Lee Historical Society spoke to the Fort Lee Library Board in an effort to save the painting. The Library Board agreed to release the painting to the Fort Lee Historical Society to have it restored with funds from the Fort Lee Historical Society and Library Board. 

The restoration was completed recently, and the painting will be dedicated in its new home, the wall of the Fort Lee Library gallery, where it will hang permanently amidst the artwork of local Fort Lee artists. 

Paul’s daughter, Michele, and her husband, Josh, will attend, as will members of the Fort Lee Historical Society, the Fort Lee Artists Guild and the Library Board.

We hope if you are free this Saturday, Nov. 24 at 12 p.m., you will join us in the Fort Lee Library gallery and help us welcome home this wonderful part of our art history during this Thanksgiving season.

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