Myron Graham, once known as “the cultural conscience of San Luis Obispo” and who played a key role in creating Mission Plaza, died Thursday after a period of failing health. He was 99.
Graham and his wife, Priscilla, got their first taste of the Central Coast during World War II, after he received a degree in fine arts at Wichita State University and did graduate work at the Chicago Institute of Art.
By 1947, they had left their Midwest home and moved to San Luis Obispo where Graham worked for Acme Quality Paints, which he later bought, and founded the iconic Graham’s Art & Picture Frame Store at 982 Monterey St. He would hold court from this location for decades.
Internationally known artist Robert Reynolds remembers working for Graham in the mid-1950s.
“He was my hero,” Reynolds recalled. “He was such a force, like the godfather of the arts. Everyone who wanted advice would drop by his store.”
A hallmark of Graham’s generous personality was that he would let starving artists, just trying to eke out a living, run tabs on art supplies and let them repay him when they could — even if it took a year or longer.
“He helped me go to school,” Reynolds added. “His belief was that you helped those who helped you.” Gail Johnson, who owns Johnson Framing studio, knew Graham since she was a child, when her mother would take her along to get custom framing of art pieces.
“He’s probably one of the reasons I got involved in framing,” Johnson said upon learning of his death. “In my world, Myron never aged. He always had this youthful attitude, perhaps because he was always around young people and art because of his business.
“We might not have Mission Plaza if it weren’t for him and Ken Schwartz. They changed the way we think about downtown,” she said.
Indeed, Graham and Schwartz moved to San Luis Obispo when it was a tired community with a population of some 12,000. As a mission city, it was one of the oldest towns in California, and it had grown without much thought for aesthetics.
Instead of the city’s signature downtown trees, telephone poles sprouted from the sidewalks; merchant advertising consisted to a greater degree of making store signs ever larger; San Luis Creek was a dumping ground for burned-out appliances, tires and other assorted trash.
It was perhaps destined that Graham and Schwartz should join forces: Graham always wanted to be an architect, and Schwartz was hired as a young professor at Cal Poly’s burgeoning School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Graham sat on the first Architecture Review Committee and Sign Ordinance Committee in the mid-’50s. The advisory body worked for ordinances that would limit the size of signs in order to bring a sense of scale to the downtown. The merchants howled.
Graham and Schwartz then worked on a downtown tree ordinance that once again outraged merchants: The trees will hide our downsized signs; birds will sit in the trees and poop, and patrons will track it into our stores. The biggest battle was yet to be played out: Mission Plaza.
It seems like such a no-brainer today — having a plaza that marries the creek and Mission San Luis Obispo — but merchants didn’t want to have Monterey Street closed in front of the mission because 18 parking spaces would be lost.
By 1969, both Graham and Schwartz were on the City Council. Schwartz’s architecture students took on a variety of designs for a plaza. Meetings with mock-ups were held at the old recreation center with merchant moans echoing through the downtown. In the end, though, Graham, Schwartz, Councilman R.L. Graves and Poly students prevailed by pushing a successful referendum to close Monterey.
And it wasn’t just politics that drove Graham. He was a set designer for the Little Theater, a board member of the then-San Luis Obispo County Symphony, Mozart Festival and founding member of the San Luis Obispo Art Association. He was named Citizen of the Year in 1986, although it was awarded in absentia because he and Priscilla were sailing in the Caribbean at the time.
He sat on boards for KCBX, Friends of Hearst Castle and the Cuesta College Foundation — all the while carving out blocks of time to travel to Europe and stay in educational hostels.
In the final tally, Myron Graham lived a well-examined life that, as “the cultural conscience of San Luis Obispo,” left a lasting legacy of a high-quality community.
Graham was preceded in death by wife Priscilla. He is survived by daughter Wendy and sons Peter and Robert. Arrangements are pending.