Restoration of Ben Shahn Murals at the Bronx General Post Office Has Begun

One of the 3 fully restored Ben Shahn murals at the Bronx General Post Office—10 more to go.

One of the 3 fully restored Ben Shahn murals at the Bronx General Post Office—10 more to go.

Now that the Bronx General Post Office is in the private hands of developer YoungWoo & Associates, work has begun on restoring the 13 iconic and landmarked Ben Shahn murals in the lobby.

The building, which opened on May 15, 1937 after 2 years of construction, was the largest of the 29 New Deal Era edifices built in New York City. In 1976 the building received landmark status from NYC’s Landmark Commission and in 2013, after Welcome2TheBronx broke the news that the United States Postal Service was selling the property, the interior lobby was granted landmark status as well—a feat that is not easy to achieve.

In the Landmarks Commission’s official designation of the interior as a landmark, they wrote:

“The Bronx General Post Office Building and its notable interior lobby were planned and constructed between 1934-37. The architectural design was executed by Thomas Harlan Ellett. The space contains a series of 13 mural panels created by noted artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson.

In the early 20th century—as the Bronx was becoming one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country—it became apparent that the borough needed improved postal facilities. Efforts to secure a proper headquarters began as early as 1902, but it was only during the depths of the Great Depression and the advent of New Deal public works programs that the Bronx General Post Office was finally completed. Funding came from the Public Works Administration and the architectural design was overseen by the Federal government’s Office of the Supervising Architect, of which Ellett was a temporary employee.

The Bronx General Post Office and its lobby were designed in the Modern Classical style of architecture preferred by the New Deal-era public works programs. Ellett’s design combines modified classical ornament with a tendency to abstraction and simplification of these motifs. The double-height space features floor-to-ceiling Ionic columns, a striped marble and terrazzo floor, and a coffered ceiling with simplified rosette ornamentation. Materials include gray Missouri marble and white Tennessee marble, as well as complimentary terrazzo.

Integral to the design of the Bronx General Post Office Lobby was a series of murals, titled “Resources of America,” conceived by Shahn and completed with Bryson’s assistance. The artists won the commission through an open competition sponsored by the Section of Painting and Sculpture, a Federal agency closely aligned with the Office of the Supervising Architect. Per the requirements of the competition, Shahn’s designs comprise a unified decorative scheme that integrates with the architectural setting of the lobby. All of the panels relate to the general theme of Labor and depict dynamic, even heroic, views of the American worker. An acclaimed photographer as well as painter and graphic artist, Shahn often used photographs as the basis for his paintings. Several of the panels in the Bronx Post Office were clearly inspired by his photography trips to the American heartland during the 1930s, while others were derived from his extensive collection of newspaper clippings. 

Draft versions of the murals were installed in the post office in December 1938 for public inspection and final approval. One of the panels, which included a portrait and quotation of Walt Whitman, drew intense criticism for the perception that the poet questioned the place of religion in modern society. Seeking to avoid controversy, Shahn modified the text with a different quotation. Installation of the murals occurred early the following year and all 13 panels were completed by August 1939. Reception of the murals was almost universally favorable; contemporary accounts praised them for their “real social significance as well as being beautiful compositions,” the artist’s obituary cited the Bronx works as major mural commissions, and many recent art history texts mention the paintings as amongst the best examples from his most productive period.

The Bronx General Post Office has continued to serve its original purpose since it opened in 1937. The murals have been restored on at least two occasions and the lobby underwent extensive renovations, all of which occurred in the 1970s. In spite of alterations that have occurred to the interior space, the Bronx General Post Office Lobby retains much of its original fabric and Modern Classical architectural design. The notable series of murals executed by Shahn and Bryson are intact and are still situated in their original context. The structure—whose design incorporates a significant synthesis of architecture, sculpture, and painting—remains a monument to the ideals of the New Deal-era public works programs.”

 

One of the 3 murals currently being restored is sealed off as preservationists work 6 days a week to restore the murals to their former grandeur.

One of the 3 murals currently being restored is sealed off as preservationists work 6 days a week to restore the murals to their former grandeur.

For the past several months, 6 days a week, an expert team of preservationists have been meticulously cleaning the murals and then painstakingly retouching whatever parts have been damaged whether through aging or poor prior retouching.  Once finished, a special thin glaze is applied to protect the murals.

Three of the 13 murals have already been completed with 3 currently being worked on at the moment.

This is just one process of many to bring back the interior lobby to its former glory with a few minor enhancements such as opening up some of the walls which will lead to a marketplace occupying two levels.

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