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Chicago Mural Restoration Project article

The Chicago Conservation Center Mural Preservation Project for the City of Chicago

In July of 1994, Flora Doody, a teacher from Lane Tech High School in Chicago, contacted Barry Bauman, Director-Painting Conservator of the Chicago Conservation Center (CCC), to examine a school mural that was detaching from the wall. He not only examined the paintings in question, but also found an amazing WPA and pre-WPA collection. The Works in Progress (WPA) era of the Roosevelt administration employed artists throughout the country to paint murals in public buildings such as schools, park fieldhouses, colleges, hospitals, and government buildings.

A conservation proposal for the sixty-six-piece collection was made and three of the murals were restored in the latter part of 1994. Spurned by the success of the restoration, Flora initiated fund-raising events to garner financial support for the preservation of the entire collection. Her idea blossomed to include student docent tours, bake sales and school dances. The CCC then launched a WPA/pre-WPA mural research project in November of 1994, directed by Vice-President, Heather Becker, with the assistance of Mary Gray, a local art historian. Over the next four-years, hundreds of mural sites in Chicago were visited to document condition, location, artist, subject matter and other pertinent historical information. Over 400 murals, many from the WPA era, still exist in the Chicago Public Schools making it the nations largest remaining mural collection from the early 20th century. The murals are an integral part of Chicago’s cultural and historical history.

The goals of the CCC’s research were designed to emulate the government’s original WPA plan to broaden the average American’s artistic and cultural experience. The government’s patronage of the arts during the depression represents an unprecedented birth of public art awareness in America. Chicago’s mural collection symbolizes a positive change in the status of the arts in America and serves as a reminder of the undeniable ability of art to act as a powerful record of time, people, and place.

In February of 1995, Lucy Flower High School was selected as a pilot preservation site. The 1938-1940 murals at Lucy Flower had been whitewashed in 1941. Tests were run and a conservation method was developed to safely remove two layers of paint resting on top of the original layer. These significant WPA (FAP) murals by Edward Millman entitled, Outstanding American Women, are examples of the few remaining frescoes in Chicago. The principal tried to raise money within the community to restore the mural, but to no avail.

In 1995, preparations were made to submit grant proposals to secure funding to continue the mural restoration work. In January of 1996, Heather Becker wrote grant proposals to the Field Foundation, Chicago, Illinois, and the Bay Foundation, New York. The Field Foundation offered $10,000.00 and the Bay Foundation offered $3,000.00, however, $21,000.00 was still needed for the remainder of the project. The next step included a 60-page proposal to the Board of Education.

Later that year, Ben Reyes, the former Chief of Operations for the Board of Education, approved the Phase I proposal that included the conservation of the Lucy Flower project, as well as the preservation and restoration of murals at the following schools: Schurz; Sawyer; Ryerson; Mozart; Nettelhorst; and Lane. In 1997, an unveiling ceremony was held at Lucy Flower to showcase their restored murals. The Project received an overwhelming positive response from the Chicago Community and media.

In November of 1997, the Board of Education approved Phase II of the Mural Preservation Project, which included murals at 12 schools: Armstrong; Bennett; Chopin; Clissold; Gary; Peirce; Smyth; Tilden; Tilton; Von Linne; Wentworth, and Wells. The following year, The Public Building Commission approved Phase III of the project, targeting 26 additional schools for preservation work.

As of December 2000, The Chicago Conservation Center has conserved murals at 17 schools involved in Phase I and II. To date, the Center has restored 13 of the 26 school projects included in Phase III of the Mural Preservation Project. One of the most significant aspects of the preservation program is the outgrowth of art education for the children of Chicago. The Art Institute of Chicago and the Polk Brothers Foundation of Chicago have initiated a class curriculum program called, Chicago: City in Art. The goal is to integrate the preservation of the murals into each school’s art, science, music, theatre and writing classes.

In January of 2001, the CCC will also begin the restoration of murals at Chicago Park Fieldhouses and other sites throughout the city, including the Fine Arts Building murals and the William E. Scott mural at the former Wabash YMCA. The Chicago Conservation Center is currently preserving the murals for the Louis Sullivan Ganz Hall at Roosevelt University.