CHS Re:Take | Born on Capitol Hill, the architect who became a pilot and a painter

1102 Harvard Ave N, 1937 and 1957

The home Fransioli grew up in, 1102 Harvard Ave N. Pictured in 1937 (top) and 1957 (Washington State Archives)

Fransioli yearbook photo

Thomas Fransioli, 1923 (Broadway High School yearbook)

Let’s have a little talk about Thomas Fransioli, Jr. When a pilot is on patrol and his plane takes pictures but he parks to ply as a painter of the places he previously planned, he is called a pylon penning, pillbox pecking, painting pushing poster boy.

From here to there
Thomas Fransioli, Jr. was grandson of early streetcar executive M. H. Young (check out this vintage CHS Re:Take!). He grew up in Harvard-Belmont, went to Lowell and graduated Broadway High in 1923. He was the senior class treasurer, and active in the glee club and drama.

A 1949 Seattle Times article said he attended the UW for two years, but the timing isn’t clear. Maybe he took classes while in high school? After graduating Broadway in ’23 he went to the University of Pennsylvania, got a degree in architecture, and became an architect on the east coast. A couple of his design works are mentioned online: a house in Virginia, and work for John Russell Pope on the National Gallery.

Below is the only piece of his early work that I can find photographed. He designed a dress for his wife Elizabeth for the super fancy Beaux Arts Ball in New York City in 1940. Life Magazine ran a color spread of the best dresses at the ball. Elizabeth won 3rd place.

Elizabeth Fransioli

Elizabeth Fransioli in gown by Thomas Fransioli (Life Magazine, April 1, 1940)

Human drone
Then at about 35, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps (the U.S. Air Force) for World War Two. He flew reconnaissance aircraft. He probably flew fighter planes that had cameras instead of guns to buzz battlefields, but there were also retrofitted bombers that flew high above the action.

Back then, the idea of taking film and photos while flying over enemy targets was completely novel. The British pioneered it and taught us in Europe to fight the Nazis. If you’re chuckling to yourself thinking about the modern drone era, you are already behind the times. Companies like Spaceflight in Seattle are pioneering ubiquitous, instant commercial satellite imagery. Now hedge fund managers can see how many cars are parked outside Walmart and the Aluminum Extruders Council can figure out where all of that illicit aluminum ends up. But I digress. (Hoping Spaceflight are successfully launching their first satellite while you’re read this!)

One profile of Fransioli says that he was “among the first American soldiers to survey Hiroshima after the atomic bomb’s detonation in August 1945.” WW2 Army service records were destroyed in a tragic fire, so it’s not simple to figure out the details. One desperate web search led me to an amazing story of a reconnaissance bomber that accidentally flew over Hiroshima as the atomic bomb was dropped.

Fransioli was not aboard that plane. Most of the reconnaissance imagery was presumably lost, destroyed at forward air bases when no longer needed. But there are thousands of reels of war combat film and untold volumes of photographs waiting in our National Archives. Maybe we’ll see Fransioli’s work some day.

There are more details waiting at the Smithsonian, too. They have a Fransioli oral history interview, but only a short segment is available online. He says a bit about Seattle, then it cuts off. What a tease.

Maybe when we hear his story in his own words then the gates will open on a new flood of research?

Painter
After the war, Fransioli ditched architecture and started painting seriously for the first time in his life. He was successful, operating out of Maine. Mainers loved him and granted him honorary citizenship in 1954.  That was the year of his first big exhibit, and after New England was done looking we put them on display at our Seattle Art Museum. SAM has a few of his paintings and a small file of references still today.

Just last year there was a show of Fransioli’s work in New York, “An Architect’s Dream: The Magic Realist World of Thomas Fransioli”. That page has images of a number of his paintings, and there are plenty more on the Internet.

Give it a whirl.

March 1, 1950 Collier's cover

Fransioli’s 1949 painting of Seattle viewed from Magnolia Bluff was one of a series of thirty city paintings for the cover of Collier’s Magazine. This appeared March 1, 1950 (unz.org)

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