Restoration Case Study: Mural Revival

By JULIANNA TANCREDI, Restoration Division

At Restoration Division, a fine art conservation studio in Chicago, murals are given a new lease on life regularly. Murals are unique in their physical and stylistic connection to a location, and this creates issues as older buildings with murals are renovated, demolished, or repurposed. The process can potentially be devastating for an artwork that is on a wall or ceiling, but it can also be seen as an opportunity to save, restore, and transfer a mural to a new environment. Older murals inherently have their own trail of thoughts and histories, and incorporating them into new spaces can create nuanced and complex interiors. The juxtaposition of the modern and antique is a trend that has gained recognition and popularity year over year, and fine art conservators are on the front line of this movement.

A striking revitalization project undertaken by Restoration Division was the restoration of badly damaged murals located in what is now the Chicago Randolph Tower. The Gothic Revival skyscraper was built in 1929 for the Steuben Club, which promoted German-American heritage. The club included a ballroom decorated with neoclassical murals by Gustave Brand (1862-1944), a German-American artist, which celebrated the history and accomplishments of the German people. The building subsequently went through a period of extreme neglect and disrepair in the mid-20th century and eventually resurrected from 2011 to 2013.

The ballroom with Brand’s ceiling murals particularly suffered, as the space was divided into offices and bathrooms installed above. The murals were damaged to the point of tatters by time, water, and contractors’ carelessness. Rather than declare the paintings a loss, Restoration Division was asked by Paul Alessandro of Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture and Kenneth Barnes of Lexington Homes to transform them into framed, individual artworks. After months of conservation and restoration, the framed murals were installed in the newly redesigned Randolph Tower interiors. The historic murals and the contemporary interiors now successfully interweave with each other to create a new, vibrant architectural vocabulary.

Another mural Restoration Division recently breathed new life into is the first ever mural project by William de Leftwich Dodge (1867-1935), an American painter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1893, Dodge was commissioned to paint the enormous dome of the Administration Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The artist first made a large study in oil on canvas for the full scale mural, which was painted directly onto the structure’s plaster ceiling. As with much of the White City, the Administration Building and its mural were demolished once the fair closed. Despite the destruction of his work, Dodge emerged as one of the most prominent muralists of the era as a result of the commission,  

Although the full scale mural is lost, the study survived and later placed on the ceiling of an 1893 suburban Chicago home. The home owners, Allan and Judy Koessel, are deeply knowledgeable and sensitive to art and history. They decided to have Restoration Division remove the mural from the ceiling, where it was barely visible, and restore it to its former glory.

Rather than reinstall the mural on the ceiling after restoration, the Koessels have decided to display the artwork vertically, in a custom-built frame. Like the Administration Building mural, the Koessels’ study is a depiction of The Glorification of the Arts and Sciences. A procession of figures representing Architecture, Agriculture, Art, and Science flamboyantly and colorfully parades the roundel. Through the re-imagination of its display, viewers can now see the mural’s fascinating details and connect with the time of the Columbian Exposition. The Koessels’ plan to exhibit the framed mural in different locations, so audiences can view and learn about an important piece of Chicago history. The couple ultimately hopes to find a permanent location for the painting, where it can radiate its colorful style and masterful composition for many generations to come.

Significant murals are artworks worthy in their own right and they can offer more than just a glimpse into things past. They are intricate paintings that can argue and coexist with new environments, creating new visual vocabularies in contemporary interiors. Art can go out of style, but qualities of a good artwork are eternal. Restoration Division is pleased to have the duty of reintroducing murals into contemporary life.

Top image: William de Leftwich Dodge mural, before and after restoration 

Find more information about Restoration Division here.