Palladium-Item, Section: Region, Page: 1, 3E on June 5, 2005
Author: Pam Tharp
Relics of a
Depression-era program went mostly unnoticed, some in disrepair,
along the walls of local post offices
Now restorers hope to preserve these invaluable works of art.
They're way above the hustle and bustle of the post office, mostly
unnoticed when customers dash in to grab mail, buy stamps or pick up
Their subject matter - Midwestern farm scenes or "waiting for the
mail" - is far removed from 21st Century America, where stamps are
bought online, e-mail has replaced letter writing and a trip to the
mailbox is more about junk mail than news.
Indiana's post office murals are relics of a Great Depression
program that brought original artwork to public buildings, but the
historic art isn't being neglected.
Three area post offices - Cambridge City, Liberty and Union City -
have a mural and Cambridge City and Liberty's were professionally
restored last month.
Liberty postal customer Kathy Dunaway picks up her mail in the lobby
every day, but she'd never noticed the mural over the postmaster's
door until it was pointed out to her last week.
"It looks brand new. You'd think it was just painted," Dunaway said
of the 66-year-old mural. "There's a lot of great detail there. More
attention should be drawn to it."
Long-time Liberty resident Harold Crouse had never spotted the mural
either. He asked if its farm scene was in Union County, then
provided his own answer.
"It couldn't be here. The roads weren't that good in Union County in
1939," Crouse said.
The murals are up so high that many postal customers don't notice
them until restorers are working on them, said Elizabeth Kendall,
owner of PARMA, the Chicago firm that restored the Cambridge City
and Liberty murals, as well as one in Dunkirk this spring. Customers
often think restorers are creating the murals for the first time,
A restoration can take just a few days if the mural has no
structural damage, but the work can stretch into weeks if it has
been improperly restored in the past or sustained water damage,
Neither of the local murals had ever been cleaned, Kendall said. The
Liberty mural has a series of cracks that will eventually require it
be removed from the wall for repair, she said.
"Every mural is different," Kendall said. "We don't have one
cleaning solution for all of them. We bring a complete portable
laboratory and create whatever it needs."
Liberty's mural was so soiled postal clerk Marvin Pitcher had never
seen the farm dog running ahead of the team of horses.
"The cleaning really brightened it a lot. The first day it was
cleaned half-way and the difference was amazing," Pitcher said.
Most Cambridge City customers are unfamiliar with Single G, who held
the world's record for pacing horses, the centerpiece of Cambridge
City's 1941 mural, said Postmaster Carl Barnes. The famed horse's
reputation was also news to Barnes, who came to the Cambridge City
office in January.
"I'd never worked in a post office with a mural before," said
Barnes, a 15-year veteran with the Postal Service. "A lot more
customers are noticing the mural since it was restored. The colors
are a lot more vibrant."
Art students from area colleges sometimes visit the Liberty Post
Office to see the mural, often taking pictures of it, Pitcher said.
Mural artists were selected through a series of open competitions.
Each mural's subject matter was decided upon through a series of
letters among the artist, the local postmaster and "the Section," as
the Treasury Department was known.
"The best artists of the time vied for this work," Kendall said.
"(The murals) are really fine art. They are so valuable, they're
Union City's post office mural was painted in 1938 by Don Mattison,
who was the director of the John Herron Institute of Art in
Indianapolis. Mattison also painted the mural in the Tipton Post
Union City's mural hasn't been restored, but the office recently
completed a survey about the mural and its need for cleaning, so
officials expect it will be scheduled for that work.
"A lot of people come in and take pictures of it and ask questions,"
said 25-year postal clerk Susan Hufford. "The Art Depot sends people
up here to see it."
The historic murals are now the property of the Smithsonian
Institute, but the Postal Service is charged with keeping them
professionally maintained, said George Short, Postal Service
architect and Indianapolis engineer. Up to four Indiana murals may
be restored this year, Short said.
While the original artists earned from $500 to $1,000 for the
murals, restoring them is more costly and the work must wait until
extra funds are available, Short said. He estimated each mural's
restoration costs $4,000 to $6,000.
"It's very tedious work," Short said. "If repairs are needed they
must maintain the originality of the work."
History of the Murals
Indiana had 37 post office murals painted in oils on canvas between
1935 and 1942. All but the one in Berne are still in existence.
Post office construction was a popular Works Progress Administration
project, a Roosevelt-era program that improved public infrastructure
and offered employment instead of a handout.
Liberty, Union City and Cambridge City's post offices were all built
during that era.
Mural painting was managed by the Treasury Department's Section of
Painting and Sculpture and the funds for the paintings and other
"embellishments" could be included in the building's budget, up to
one percent of building's cost, according to author John C.
Carlisle, who wrote the 1995 book, "A Simple and Vital Design: The
Story of the Indiana Post Office Murals."
About 1,400 new post offices across the country that were built by
the WPA had enough money left over to include art. About 1,100 of
those paintings remain, said Elizabeth Kendall, an art restoration
At a glance
Cambridge City Post Office mural
- Title - "Pride of Cambridge City"
- Size - 9 foot 6 inches by 4'6"
- Artist - Samuel F. Hershey
- Fee - $750
- Completed - Nov. 27, 1941
Liberty Post Office mural
- Title - "Autumn Fields"
- Size - 12'3" by 4'3"
- Artist - Avery Johnson
- Fee - $670
- Completed - July 21, 1939
Union City Post Office mural
- Title - "Country Cousins"
- Size - 12' by 3'
- Artist - Donald Mattison
- Fee - $570
- Completed - 1938
"A Simple and Vital Design: The Story of Indiana Post Office
Murals" by John C. Carlisle
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