Santa Claus in the Operating Room

In 1930, Vilray P. Blair, MD, the founder of the plastic surgery program at Washington University School of Medicine, was planning his new operating room in the surgical wing of Barnes Hospital. Blair was world-renowned for his work on the most difficult cases, and still did a considerable amount of surgeries on children under local anesthetic. Many of the children brought into the operating room awake were terrified. He hoped to find a way to comfort them and help them relax during the operations.

Blair happened to come across the work of a local artist, Gisella Loeffler Lachar, and was taken by her endearing, almost childlike art. He commissioned her to paint the walls and the ceiling of his new operating room to help it appear more inviting and less foreboding to the children.

Gisella Loeffler was born in Austria in 1902 and came with her family to the United States in 1908. They settled in St. Louis where she attended the Washington University School of Fine Arts. She trained in traditional painting but began to develop her own style, which now might be called “naïve” or primitive art. Gisella remembered, “I came to America when I was a little girl just past five. I was a homesick little girl, so I began to paint the little things I remembered.” She was especially inspired by the colorful, traditional clothing and walks in the forest to pick mushrooms and berries. “And the flowers. Oh my! Those wonderful fragrant flowers in the fields and woods. So when I came to America I painted my childhood memories, those happy times of peasant life.”

By December of 1930, she began her work for Blair by researching how tempera paints could best be used on the walls of the operating room. When construction ended in the summer of 1931 she was able to start painting around Blair’s busy schedule. Her contract was for 30 days of work, but she continued on for nine months painting over 300 figures from folk tales and stories. Among the figures are Santa Claus with angels and woodland creatures, a ceiling of mermaids, and walls with familiar characters like Jack and the Beanstalk and the Cat and the Fiddle.

By 1933, after her work for Blair was complete and in the midst of the Great Depression, Loeffler had divorced her husband and moved with her two daughters to Taos, New Mexico to join a colony of artists there. Loeffler painted murals in schools and other hospitals for the Federal Art Project (FAP), a New Deal program which employed nearly 6,000 artists and financed the creation of over 300,000 pieces, including some of our nation’s most significant works of public art. The artwork Loeffler made for the Carrie Tingley Hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico still survives today, though sadly her work at Barnes Hospital here does not.

In 1939, with a war in Europe looming, the FAP began laying off artists. Loeffler moved to California in 1940 where she found work painting camouflage on planes. After the war, and with her children now grown, she moved back to New Mexico and resumed painting and sculpting. She died in 1977.

In a letter to Blair, back when she was first contemplating her move to Taos, Loeffler asked “I have been wondering if your wishes are being fulfilled – I mean – about the poor crying frightened children. It would be a great happiness to me if really some of the pain could for a while be forgotten.”

Her question was answered by Louis Burlingham, superintendent of Barnes Hospital when he spoke of her paintings. “The practical advantages of a decorated operating room are demonstrated every day. Children come in frightened and crying. Then they see the pictures and start looking around. In a little while their fears are forgotten.”