Mural Restoration: A Rebirth of Public Art
In a restoration of the Cleveland Federal Building, Francis Davis Millet’s “Mail Delivery” murals were rescued by the General Services Administration and its Fine Arts program.
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When the construction of Cleveland’s majestic Federal Building was completed in 1910, the Beaux Arts structure became the new home for the city’s federal courts and customs collector. The building’s pride, however, was its post office, the main post office for the city of Cleveland and a symbol of American progress and efficiency. Like all symbols, its symbolism had to be overt to make its meaning clear, and so the New York-based architect Arnold W. Brunner (designer of the building, under the direction of James Knox Taylor, the supervising architect of the Treasury), turned to the American artist Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912) for a series of murals that could inspire the public.
A respected figure, whose work can be found in the collections of the Tate Gallery in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Millet rose to the challenge. He painted 35 images depicting the various methods by which mail has been delivered throughout the world, from the American Pony Express to the camel riders of Arabia. Land, sea and air deliveries are all represented by Millet’s “Mail Delivery” series, presenting a global embrace that celebrates the exchange of mail as a cornerstone of civilized life, regardless of race, nationality, religion or culture.
The murals were completed in 1911 and fixed to the walls of the postmaster’s office on the second floor: a grand, 950-sq.ft. corner space that unfortunately was not visited by the general public. There the murals remained, outlasting the Federal Building’s post office itself, which was relocated to a larger space in 1934. The Collector of U.S. Customs, the office’s new occupant, got to admire Millet’s artistry until 1955, when additional space had to be allotted to the federal courts. In the process, the murals were taken down from the walls, stored away in the building, and largely forgotten.
The Appropriate Context
The Federal Building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, but the rebirth of the “Mail Delivery” murals didn’t begin until the 1980s, thanks to the intercession of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). One of three central management agencies in the federal government, GSA provides managed space, supplies, services and solutions to enable federal employees to accomplish their tasks. Along with offering work spaces, security and equipment, GSA’s responsibilities include the preservation of historic buildings and their government-commissioned works of art. Its Fine Arts program sought to protect and care for the Millet murals until they could be restored and displayed once again.
In 1998 the Federal Building was renamed the Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, and in 2002 a major renovation began under the architectural firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky and construction management company Dick Corporation, both of Cleveland. Costing some $44.6 million and funded entirely by the federal government, the project tackled a range of needs throughout the building. Inefficient spaces were gutted and transformed into high-tech, 21st-century offices and courtrooms; circulation changes made the building more functional; accessibility for the disabled was created and original plasterwork and lighting fixtures were replicated.
The moment had come for the restoration and reinstallation of the Millet murals. GSA Project Manager Pam Wilczynski insists, “Reinstalling the art became a major aim. Nothing we could do today could compare with this art and the story it conveys. The most appropriate place for them, despite the changes in the building’s function, was there.” Regional Historic Preservation Officer Regina Nally adds, “When the current restoration project began, many different options were discussed regarding the murals. But in the end, we knew they had to go back into the original building – which had been created with the cooperation of many different artisans. There are other storytelling murals also installed in the building, which helped maintain an appropriate context for the Millet murals.”
A Uniform Level
The experts of McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory, Inc., of Oberlin, OH, were brought in on the project to perform the painstaking restoration of the entire mural series. Robert Lodge comments, “These pictures have had a hard life. They had been coated with layers of linseed oil at varying times, which has caused the murals to darken. And because that work was done unevenly through the years, the murals are in varying states of clarity. In restoring them, we have to be careful to bring them to a uniform level, so that no one panel is brighter than the others. Fortunately, they’ll be arranged with some space between them, which allows us some liberties in the range of the cleaning, as opposed to everything appearing exactly the same way.”
However, the murals had suffered far worse damage than just injudicious applications of linseed oil. Their removal from the building’s walls had resulted in areas of paint loss, due to the workers tugging at them when they were taken down. “They caused a shearing of the paint,” Lodge explains, “and left what seem like lightning bolts of white ground cutting through the murals. Easily 75% of the work we had to do on them was in-painting to replicate these missing sections.” Hundreds of hours of work were required to properly in-paint the damaged murals.
The restoration effort was further complicated by the method that had been originally used to affix the murals to the walls. “The murals had originally been attached using heavy layers of lead white, which is lead carbonate combined with linseed oil. This substance is sticky enough to adhere the canvas to the walls and then become very hard. So when the murals were removed, chunks of wall plaster and concrete block and lead dust were stuck to their backs – most of which can’t be readily removed without damaging the paintings.”
Lodge’s firm is also responsible for the reinstallation of the restored murals and has devised a reversible attachment system that also permits room for the fragments of masonry stuck to the back of the canvases. “Now each canvas has been mounted on an aluminum panel,” Lodge notes. “They’re attached to the walls using U-shaped extruded aluminum channels. Two courses of upright 'U's are fixed to the wall, and two courses of upside-down 'U's are on the back of each panel, and they simply interlock when the mural is hung – which makes it very easy to remove them when it comes time to repaint the walls.”
On Public View
Millet’s “Mail Delivery” murals not only live again, they're also directly available to the public; instead of being sequestered in a private office, the series occupies a public area on the first floor, inside the main entrance of the courthouse. Selecting a new location of adequate size and illumination took a great deal of ingenuity. Westlake Reed Leskosky, the GSA team and Robert Lodge spent months determining the ideal location for the murals. Paul E. Westlake, Jr., FAIA, the managing principal and lead designer of Westlake Reed Leskosky, has remarked on the “exhaustive technical analysis” of light levels and mural arrangement that went into this decision-making. “The space chosen," he says, "along with its lighting, palette of colors and materials, [presents] the murals to the best advantage while preserving the historic integrity of the courthouse."
By making these artworks available to the public in their original splendor, America’s history, culture and ideals become not just the stuff of books and speeches, but realities that can uplift the spirit. The Howard W. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse and Francis Davis Millet’s “Mail Delivery” murals will certainly prove to be an admirable source of inspiration for the public for decades to come.