For 38 years, a 6-foot-by-20-foot mural sat rolled up in a local history teacher's home, an all-but-forgotten remnant of a Depression-era effort to bring art directly to the people.
But a four-year community fundraising campaign and a yearlong restoration effort will culminate this weekend when the 73-year-old mural is reintroduced to the public at the Park Ridge Public Library.
Chicago-born artist George Melville Smith painted the mural, entitled "Indians Cede the Land," in 1940 for display at the former Park Ridge Post Office, 164 S. Prospect Ave. It is one of roughly 1,700 pieces of artwork commissioned for display in federal buildings — mostly post offices — by the U.S. Treasury Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
Historians call these murals a purely American art form, one that tells a story about the towns in which they were displayed. But some question whether the selling of buildings by a cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service could jeopardize public access to these murals.
"You'll find the artwork in these post offices was usually the only artwork in these small towns," said Gray Brechin, founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal, a University of California, Berkeley-based project to catalog the lasting impacts of New Deal public works sites. "That's why we're so concerned about what's happening to the post office. That really throws into the air what's going to happen to our artwork."
Smith's depiction of pioneers and military men meeting with Native Americans represents treaties that impacted control of the Chicago area, said Sandra Starr, senior researcher for the Department of History and Culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Smith's two other post office murals in Crown Point, Ind., and in west suburban Elmhurst were the result of commissions from the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts.
Unlike the Works Progress Administration-commissioned New Deal art designed to employ destitute artists, "the Section," as it's commonly called, relied on a competitive process to select the best artists for the jobs.
About 1,200 murals throughout the U.S. are displayed in post offices or are on loan to public libraries, said Dallan Wordekemper, federal preservation officer for the U.S. Postal Service. In Chicago, Treasury Section murals hang in post offices in Uptown, Lakeview and the Loop, according to the website newdealartregistry.org.
The postal service still owns the murals, even if the building is sold to a private entity, Wordekemper said, and requires that they be available for public viewing.
But in some cases, Brechin and others question how accessible the murals are. In Venice, Calif., for example, Brechin said a movie producer bought a post office there to convert it into a production facility. While the new owner plans to restore the mural at his own expense, according to Brechin, he also plans to make it accessible to the public by reservation only.
"That's not public anymore," Brechin said.
In Park Ridge, Smith's mural remained in the post office until 1970, when the building was sold to Park Ridge-Niles School District 64, said Pat Lofthouse, a Park Ridge library board member and school librarian.
The mural would have been destroyed during the building's renovation, Lofthouse said, if not for Maine East High School history teacher Paul Carlson. With the school district's permission, Carlson and two students removed the mural, rolled it up and stored it at his house while he attempted to drum up support for its restoration and display, Lofthouse said.
The artwork remained at Carlson's home until his death in 2008, when the Park Ridge library was given it as a condition of his will. The mural's journey was far from over, though, as it had deteriorated severely over the years.
"It was in a pretty devastating state," said Elizabeth Kendall, chief conservator and owner of Parma Conservation, Ltd., a Chicago-based art conservation company whom the library contracted to restore Smith's mural.
Library officials joined with the Park Ridge Historical Society on a fundraising campaign of the entire Park Ridge community, resulting in the $38,000 needed to restore the mural.
Library officials have planned a public unveiling of the mural at 2 p.m. Feb. 23 at the library, 20 S. Prospect Ave.
The postal service tries to find ways to preserve murals and keep them accessible to the community, Wordekemper said, but the agency's budget includes no money for restoration.
In some cases, such as in Bethesda, Md., the postal service used revenue from the sale of its post office building to remove and restore a mural for eventual display nearby, Wordekemper said. But for most post office murals, the community must pay to restore the artwork. Brechin and others hope those communities continue to protect their murals.
"What's so cool about this whole idea is that some of the most off-the-beaten-track places have really major works of art," said Barbara Bernstein, founder of the New Deal Art Registry website. "You didn't have to go to the big city or Washington, D.C. The artist came to your town and painted a movie screen-size picture of life in your part of the country."