The Story of a Post Office Mural
WAPAKONETA, OH – Like stepping into the past, the visual impact of downtown Wapakoneta evokes nostalgia like an Edward Hopper painting. The streets are bustling with historic architecture, proud designs from the 1840’s through the 1930’s. Sixty-Five of these buildings are in the National Register of Historic Places, comprising the Wapakoneta Commercial Historic District. (Barber, 93)
One of these historic buildings, the Wapakoneta post office (1938) received a nice surprise in May. Conservators from Parma Conservation traveled there to clean and conserve a treasured New Deal mural in the post office lobby. The piece, an oil triptych on masonite, depicts the story of Wapakoneta in “American Scene”, an artistic style made famous by artists such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.
Over the course of three days, Parma conservators reversed 70 years of dirt, grime, and tobacco smoke (from an earlier era) that had accumulated on the mural surface. A steady stream of patrons watched as the mural was transformed by the conservation process. “Even we did not know it was that dirty,” said John Salhus, one of the conservators tasked with the project, “Its like the sun just came out.”
The mural is one of 1,100 post office murals still in existence, painted for a government program during the Great Depression under the U.S. Department of the Treasury (the “Section of Fine Arts”, 1934-1943). Whenever a new federal building was constructed, one percent (1%) of the total cost was set aside for artwork. The Postal Service then held juried competitions to select the best artistic designs for a mural or sculpture that would eventually embellish the post office lobby. They only wanted the best artists to be represented. In 1940, the winner of this prestigious honor was JOSEPH LAMARZI [1908-2000], a talented painter who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Since it’s the 175th Anniversary of the town, people are very excited to see this restoration,” said Jenny Fox, Wapakoneta’s postmaster, “One lady was so touched, she had tears in her eyes. People are very preservation conscious here.”
Peter Schoenmann, Sr. Painting Conservator for Parma, said people were “dumbstruck” by the change as decades of dirt and air pollution were gently cleaned from the work.
“We got reactions from ‘Wow, are you just painting that?’ to ‘Its so bright, I’ve never seen that before,’ to ‘How on earth are you cleaning that?’ “(Tangeman 6A).
Schoenmann said they used cleaning technology “specific to the needs of a 1930’s oil painting. Dirt itself is abrasive, so you can’t be too careful. Oil paint films are particularly sensitive to harm. We carry a portable laboratory that has all of the chemistry we need to design a safe cleaning system.”
The cleaning solution was designed on location at the post office where the restoration took place. It was an aqueous solution applied with soft cotton swabs, consisting of a mild surfactant, a chelating agent, and a pH buffer.
“People really have to come in and see it,” Fox said. “Its like it pops out at you. It was really faded and dull and it is really bright, now. A lot of people think it’s a new painting” (Tangeman 6A).
Tangeman, Jennifer “Restoring art: Wapak Post Office mural preserved” Wapakoneta Daily News 5, May 2010, 6A.
Barber, Rachel., ed. The Book of Wapakoneta. Wapakoneta, Ohio: Daily News Printing Company, Dec. 2009, 93.