Over a span of years, art sometimes becomes a victim, forgotten in dark rooms and attics, left there to make way for renovation and progress or perhaps falling victim to a fit of forgetfulness by its caretakers.
Such was the case with a mural by Miriam McKinnie, originally hung in the Forest Park Post Office in 1940, depicting the excursion of a boat, called “The White Fawn.” The boat was built by local pioneer Ferdinand Haase and transported tour groups from Chicago down the Des Plaines River in the 1880s.
The mural, forgotten for 30 years, was taken down to repaint the office’s walls; it was rolled up and left in the Forest Park Public Library until 1997. Friday, after being professionally restored, the mural was rededicated and hung in the Forest Park Post Office on 417 Desplaines Avenue.
The mural, named after the boat it depicts, also shows a hanging rope bridge, built by Leo G. Hass, Ferdinand’s son. The bridge was considered a great engineering feat at the time.
“We stand here to return to the place where 65 years ago [this] mural was placed as a solid reminder of our past,” said Mayor Anthony Calderone as he introduced the restored mural.
The rededication ceremony comes after an 8-year effort by art conservationists and the U.S. Post Office to restore the mural, and a seven-month-long restoration process by Parma Conservation in Illinois.
“There was a lot of paint missing and the upper left hand corner was completely missing,” said Elizabeth Kendall who led the conservation team at Parma.
In fact, being rolled up in a library for 30 years meant the mural had ripples in it, making it look more like an accordion than a mural, she said.
“70 years worth of dirt and grime and pollution from people smoking in the post office,” were just some of the challenges Parma faced in restoring the mural.
In addition, water damage destroyed the upper left hand corner and the adhesive originally used to mount the mural presented a problem for the specialists at Parma.
“It was adhered to the wall with lead adhesives which is, one, toxic and, second, semi-permanent,” Kendall said.
Kendall and her team had to use gas masks to painstakingly clean the back, adding a new canvas and an aluminum honeycomb support to the back.
The mural was originally commissioned during the New Deal Era for post offices as part of the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts.
The program, along with its more
famous counterpart, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s way of inspiring Americans to become active members of society, said Rich Vitton, president of the Forest Park Historical Society.
Artists were commissioned to depict our history and our everyday lives, keeping the soul of the nation alive, he said.
Unlike the WPA, however, said Mary Emma Thompson, a researcher of New Deal Art Projects, the section rewarded quality of work, not quantity.
The section, she said, held competitions so that “any artist could apply for the opportunity to paint a mural.”
Winners had their art displayed in larger post offices, and the quality runner-ups were given to smaller post offices, such as the one in Forest Park.
In addition, “One percent of all funds appropriated for a new federal building went to put art in the building,” she said.
Almost 100 pieces of art commissioned during the New Deal Era for post offices across the country are missing, said Gail Stollenwerk, a Real Estate Preservation Specialist with the U.S. Post Office. They have been sold to private persons, painted over, or forgotten. Friday, one of the missing was returned to Forest Park.