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Single G Mural titled "Pride of Cambridge City"

This mural of Single G resides on the west wall of the Cambridge City Post Office, located at 227 West Main Street (National Road/U.S. 40) in Cambridge City, Indiana.  The artist was Samuel F. Hershey and it was completed in 1941.

Photo taken July 7, 2006

From the 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 a package.

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, she said.

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, Kendall said.

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 invaluable."

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 Office.

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 expert.

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

This article Copyright (c) Palladium-Item. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the Palladium-Item.

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