The Columbus mosaics are hardly the only pieces of public art languishing in storage. John Warner Norton's 1929 mural Printing the News, Distributing the News, Transporting the News, removed from the concourse ceiling of the Riverside Plaza building more than five years ago, is still rolled up in a warehouse on the northwest side.
The 180-foot-long mural, the subject of a 1997 Reader story that I wrote, was originally commissioned by the Chicago Daily News for its Holabird & Root building at Madison and Canal. A Lockport native and longtime instructor at the School of the Art Institute, Norton did architectural paintings for many downtown art-deco skyscrapers and other buildings in Chicago and the midwest during the early decades of this century. The mural, which uses graphic symbols and semiabstract geometric forms to depict a day in the life of a modern newspaper, is considered his masterpiece--one local conservator called it the "Sistine chapel of Chicago." Norton and three assistants painted the 19 canvas panels--3,330 square feet--in a studio, then affixed them to the concourse's vaulted ceiling in 1930.
Over the years smoke, grime, and moisture took their toll. A panel that had come loose in 1991 because of a leaky roof was first evaluated by Chicago conservator Rick Strilky, who'd restored two other local Norton murals. He told representatives of First Office Management, the building's owner, that his firm was too small to handle what would amount to an enormously costly and time-consuming restoration. But he offered to line up a group of sterling midwestern conservators who would act as consultants on the project free of charge. The offer was rejected.
In October 1993 the building's owners, now called Equity Office Properties, hired Conrad Schmitt Studios to remove the mural, examine the work, and submit a bid. Other conservators and preservationists, some of whom questioned Schmitt Studios' ability to do the job, maintained that the mural should be restored in place to minimize damage. But building administrators insisted that the mural had to come down to allow workers to renovate the concourse roof and ceiling.
As it turned out, Schmitt Studios' bid--reportedly in the $500,000 range--was deemed too high by Equity Office Properties. The mural was returned to Chicago in August 1995 and placed in the temperature-controlled warehouse of a local art-moving and storage company. At that time a west-coast conservator evaluated the mural and estimated that up to 40 percent of its paint had been damaged when it was removed, which would make for an even costlier and more complicated restoration.
In 1997 David Crawford, a senior vice president of Equity Office Properties who was then the point man for the mural, said the company was committed to reinstalling the mural on the ceiling but that it wanted to investigate all options before spending time and money on the project. Equity Office Properties wanted to do "the best and right thing for the mural," he said. "We want to have a better and thorough consensus on a course of action for the near future."
Crawford has since left Equity Office Properties. A spokesperson for the building management office now says, "There really isn't anything to say. There has not been any activity--nothing has been decided. The mural is still in storage, and we've been in contact with the storage company. No plans have been made at this point as to what's going to happen in the future. The mural has not been forgotten. It's a very costly thing just to have someone come and [test] it. We've had people coming out of the woodwork--phone calls from people we've never heard of before."
One of those calls was from Lido Lippi, who runs the north-side Florence Art Conservation and was a consultant for the restoration of Michelangelo's Sistine chapel frescoes in the late 80s. He says he contacted Equity Office Properties early this spring and expressed interest in examining the Daily News mural. "They said, 'We want to put the mural back.'" He thinks there's a good possibility his firm--which has restored historic murals in many Chicago buildings, including wall paintings and sculptures in the Elks National Memorial Building, just off Diversey--will be considered for the restoration. He thinks he might be able to do the job for $200,000 to $300,000. Yet he's starting to feel a little frustrated because he still hasn't been able to get permission to see the mural. "It has not been easy to get through," he says. "They want an estimate, but [the mural's] not easy to reach in storage. I have to take photographs to do an estimate. How can I estimate if I can't even see its condition?"
"We're continuing to work on this," says Bob Sideman, a member of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "We plan to keep bringing pressure to the building owners and raising public interest. We continue to hear from the public that there is interest in getting this mural reinstalled."
Strilky is less sanguine. "Someday someone will do the job, but I don't think any of the current players will be alive. Fifty years from now maybe they'll say, 'There were people trying to do the right thing back then.'" --J.H.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.