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Visionary Parklands

Project: Field House Murals, Chicago, IL

Conservators: Chicago Conservation Center, Chicago, IL

Architect: Michael Fus, preservation architect, Chicago Park District

By Eve M. Kahn

Only in Chicago can a kid taking a break inside a park shelter enjoy painted visions of ballerinas, Revolutionary War soldiers or prairie farmers. Only in Chicago are dozens of city-owned field houses, built in a burst of civic pride and philanthropy from the 1900s to the 1930s, lined in artworks by renowned muralists. Chicago's public schools also possess nearly 440 pre-World War II murals, and countless more hang in courthouses and post offices.

"We unquestionably have the largest concentration of mural art in America, and there's no other city where more than one or two parks buildings have any murals at all," says Heather Becker, head of The Chicago Conservation Center. The company just finished a three-year restoration of 58 long-obscured murals in 11 field houses scattered across the city. In three-person teams led by Dr. Margaret Nowo-sielska, senior mural conservator, the center has saved scenes originally intended to edify the masses while harmonizing with high-style architecture.

In the early 1900s, a nonprofit advocacy group called the Playground Association of America urged Chicago do-gooders to create aesthetically appealing parks, especially to give immigrant children a place to learn sports and, ideally, become Americanized. The city brought in landscape architects as prominent as Jens Jensen and the Olmsteds and commissioned buildings from prolific architects like Daniel H. Burnham and William Carbys Zimmerman. Inside the vaulted rooms of Beaux Arts, Tudor, Mediterranean Revival and Prairie structures, muralists mostly trained at the Art Institute of Chicago were allowed free rein. They laid out allegorical scenes of gauzy toga-clad muses or historically accurate tableaus of Native American fur trappers, Puritans, Founding Fathers and skyscraper engineers.

The parks continued to fill with art through the 1940s. When private benefactors ran out of money during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration stepped in to keep sculptors and painters on retainers of about $90 a month. The park structures, Becker says, "ended up with wonderful stone carvings, metalwork and stained glass, and the paintings all around help draw attention to the architecture. These places were meant as gifts to the people."

Her company took on the park murals in 2004, after a decade-long stint restoring school murals, some of which had spent years under whitewash or in closets. The school project, funded by private, corporate and government grants, proved highly successful – teachers, parents, students, preservationists and journalists have widely praised its uplifting effect on school morale and influence on citywide arts-education standards.

"While we were out working at the different schools," recalls Becker, "it was fun to stop at the field houses, too, and study the murals there. But the first dilemma was, as always, 'Who will pay for their restoration?'" Michael Fus, the Park District's pres-ervation architect, explains that "we never have enough funding to complete as much as we'd like to, and sometimes we have to only take on the most urgent situations."

The conservation center rounded up dozens of prospective donors for the park overhaul, including banks, insurance companies and others such as Marshall Field and Richard Driehaus. Becker also won over the Park District, which ended up covering half of the project's $376,000 budget. "And we repaired the underlying problems at the buildings, the leaks and cracks," Fus says.

The field houses have no climate controls, so the murals' condition, Becker notes, "was all over the map – some needed simply cleaning and a little flattening, others had severe lifting and flaking pigment that was in jeopardy of being lost." Among other varied ailments the murals were suffering: tears, punctures, scratches, gouges, graffiti, ripples, sags, lifting seams, water damage, past repair attempts, heavy polyurethane coats, and missing supports on canvas stretchers. A few paintings had been executed by "emerging artists" whose paints turned out thin or powdery, while more durable artworks came from the hands of skilled mural specialists like John W. Norton, head of the Art Institute's mural department; Paris-trained African-American artist William Edouard Scott; and James Edward Mc-Burney, longtime art director for the Park District.

Becker's teams customized treatments for each site, while methodically documenting every step. They dabbed or injected potions to remove or consolidate each problematic layer and, on areas requiring infill, replicated the texture of the vintage paint. The final applications of varnish, Becker says, "protect the paint and saturate the pigments, so the colors regain their original luster and give the scene a three-dimensional quality."

Throughout the work, she adds, park users stopped by to express awe. "Sometimes they'd tell us that their families had been coming there for generations, but they'd never had any idea what was in those dark murals," she says. "Now people are really aware of these hidden treasures, and are talking about them. Kids especially like figuring out what's in the allegorical images, what the different symbols mean – that really pulls in children's imaginations."

Fus reports that the newly cleaned walls "have really made the staff and the community feel a greater sense of stewardship." At one field house, the administrators have already moved a fencing class out of a muraled room to protect portraits of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall from errant blade tips. Becker hasn't yet received any urgent requests for touch-up work, but she's always eager to protect these bright-colored treasures in the public realm. "If we do hear of any problems," she says, "we'll run right out and take care of them." TB

 

 

 
 

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