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Jeff Manes: Nuts and bolts of a Hammond art gallery

Dave Mueller | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media

Dave Mueller | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 6, 2014 6:22AM



“From the shards and midden heaps of the past, you can find nuggets that will tell you what life was really like.”

— Jean Shepherd

To me, Dave Mueller has the looks and voice of Kris Kristofferson. He is the owner-operator of Paul Henry’s Art Gallery located next door to the Towle Theatre at Hohman Avenue and Sibley Street in Hammond.

The gallery also is a hardware store which was started by Dave’s great-grandfather, P.H. Mueller. With its wooden floors, ancient cash register and antique glass display cases, it’s one of the most nostalgic buildings in Northwest Indiana. If you don’t buy a painting from Mueller, he will be glad to sell you a hacksaw, fan belt, putty knife or padlock.

Mueller, 67, lives in Hammond with his wife, Rita. He is a graduate of Hammond High School and Knox College, where he earned a degree in environmental biology.

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“My great-grandfather started this place in 1887,” Mueller began. “Then it came down to my grandfather and his brother. They had the place until the early ’60s. Then, it was passed to my dad and his brother, and then me.”

Was the business strictly a hardware store?

“Along with the hardware store, it also was a sheet metal shop. That was this room; 17 guys worked back here when it was going good in the ’20s. That went on until 1939.

“My grandfather and his brother weren’t making it during the Great Depression; they were losing money every year. In ’39, they closed down the sheet metal shop and became a Dupont jobber — selling automotive paint. As you can see by all the colors of spilt paint on the floor, this was our mixing room.”

How did that work out?

“It kept us going for 65 more years. I got out of the automotive paint business in ’06.”

Do you still have customers as far as the hardware business?

“Once in a while, somebody stumbles off the street looking for some crazy thing I might have. I’ll sell a bolt, or a screw or a key from time to time. My focus now is the art gallery. I’ve kept the store intact because it is a point of interest — people like it.”

Was P.H. Mueller an immigrant?

“Yes, they came from Germany to Fond du Lac, Wis. When Chicago burned down, they went to Chicago. After all, they had to rebuild Chicago and P.H. was a tradesman. The family stayed in Chicago for about 15 years, then they came here in 1887.”

In its day, Hammond was a shopping mecca.

“Three things killed it. It was rust belt syndrome. It was a lot of the money moving south of the Little Cal. And then, you had the development of the shopping centers. Everybody points their finger: ‘It was the trains.’ No, it wasn’t the trains. This place thrived many, many decades with trains.”

Woodmar and River Oaks were probably telltale signs of things to come.

“That was the beginning of the end. By ’75, downtown Hammond was a shell of its former self. Downtown Hammond was way bigger than Southlake Mall. You had Penney’s, Woolworth’s, Goldblatt’s, Minas and hundreds of other storefronts.”

Jean Shepherd?

“A lot of people from this area had great careers in all different walks of life: athletics, business, science, music, the arts ... Jean Shepherd is somewhere near the top of that. Not only was he a brilliant writer, but he managed to capture our personality second to none.

“Some people resented the way Shepherd portrayed us. It’s like looking in the mirror and not liking what you see. He would come back and speak at IUN and people in the audience would heckle him. His humor was very dry and sardonic — Jean Shepherd was one of us.”

What made you decide to make an art gallery out of this place?

“When we were getting out of the paint business, my wife and I wanted something that wasn’t accounts receivable. We had to have something that didn’t necessitate a great amount of investment. When I was in the automotive paint business, I had to have at least $200,000 worth of inventory.”

How long has the art gallery been in business?

“Five years; we’re still building up our customer base.”

Tell me about Thursday nights here at Paul Henry’s Art Gallery.

“That’s Acoustic Night. Four hours of live music and a potluck dinner for five bucks. It’s the best deal in town. I set up about 50 chairs and we get crowds of about 60 to 90 people every Thursday. It starts at 7 p.m.”

Dave, you display some very unique and fascinating pieces of work here.

“These walls showcase creative efforts by more than 170 artists. They are individual pieces of beauty assembled together within the building. All this creative energy concentrated together has an impact on people when they come here. I’ve watched people come in here for the first time who were awestruck as if they were inside a cathedral or something.”

I really like this artsy enclave with the Towle Theatre, Paul Henry’s Art Gallery and the sculpture across the street.

“It has potential. One of the really driving calls that I have is to see downtown Hammond begin to flourish as far as redevelopment. I’d like to see a viable and commercial neighborhood like we once knew. We’ll never achieve the levels of the glory days. However, there is a lot of room to push forward and expand as a business district. Who knows? In another five years, you might see crowded sidewalks again.”

* * *

Everyone needs to visit Paul Henry’s Art Gallery at least once. It’s really something to see. If you attend Acoustic Night and bring a side dish or play an instrument, it’s $2 off the $5 cover charge.

And where did Mueller get the name Paul Henry’s Art Gallery? Those were his great-grandfather’s first and middle names.



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