Long-Lost History Rediscovered in Suburban Village | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Long-Lost History Rediscovered in Suburban Village

A long lost piece of Illinois history is getting a facelift, thanks to some librarians in one of Chicago's western suburbs. It's a remnant of the New Deal painted in plaster. And it would likely still be lost if it wasn't for a random e-mail

ambi: Sound of drilling


Some craftsmen have their heads stuck up inside a drop ceiling at Melrose Park Public Library. They're carefully pulling down tiles to clear a path. They're about to take down a mural that's been hidden since the 1970s.

Rick Grunt leans in for a closer look. He sent the e-mail that started it all.


GRUNT: To find it is just an amazing thing. You're finding something that people can only read about, and here you found something concrete, something solid, they could walk up and actually touch this thing.


The mural is one of several dozen New Deal artworks created for Illinois post offices during the Great Depression. Elizabeth Kendall, the owner of Parma Conservation, says this one is particularly significant. It's a true fresco with pigment painted onto wet plaster that becomes part of the wall.


KENDALL: With finding that this mural still exists, now all of the Illinois post office murals are accounted for, and none of them have been lost or destroyed, which is pretty amazing, and that's one of the only states that is true of.


Her company is conserving several of those artworks.


KENDALL: I just think it's such a great testament to what our country can do. It's the most democratic of art possible. You don't have to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago. You can walk into your local post office, which of course, everybody did for years and years, and that's where they put this art, for the people.


Yet this art had disappeared from view in Melrose Park. Rick Grunt remembers going to the post office with his mom and looking at the paintings.


GRUNT: I was just very fascinated with it. They always took you somewhere else because they were of a different time. They were obviously drawn during the '30s.


Decades later, Grunt saw an article about New Deal artwork and thought about the old post office. He went online and saw the mural listed as destroyed. Grunt dashed off an e-mail to the reference desk, hoping for an old photo.


Reference manager Fidencio Marbella got that e-mail.


MARBELLA: None of us had ever heard of this painting, but we contacted the National Archives. They were able to get us a black-and-white photograph of it, so we e-mailed it off to Richard, and we figured, well, that's that. But as we were looking at the photograph, we realized it was above the postmaster's office, and we knew where the postmaster's office was, so let's go take a look.


Marbella got a stepladder and moved aside ceiling tiles one at a time.


MARBELLA: Then I would put my head up there with a flashlight and see if I could find anything. The first few times we did that, there was nothing, just a lot of wiring and old trim from the post office. About the fourth or fifth one that we moved out of the way, I looked up there, and I saw an airplane. (Laughs.)

KALSNES: What was your reaction?

MARBELLA: Uh, Darn. (Laughs.) I was pretty shocked.


The mural he discovered is called “Airmail.” The artist is Edwin Boyd Johnson. It shows a muscular man carrying an envelope and leaping over buildings and houses. A plane flies over his shoulder, and a bird swoops in to grab the envelope.


Rick Grunt was thrilled to get the news.


GRUNT: We're proud. You can't help but be proud of it. You can't help but feel that you as an individual, by chance, have contributed to something that will go on past you.


Now the mural isn't in pristine condition. Pieces are missing. But Marbella says the damage made the library staff more determined to save what was left.


MARBELLA: When people think of history, they think of Oak Park and River Forest, but there's a lot of cool stuff right here in Melrose Park.


Marbella learned there used to be an airfield in Melrose Park, and nearby Checkerboard Field was used in the early days of air mail. A local company built airplanes.


Part of preserving the town's history is passing it on to young people.


ambi: Seventh grade, line up, please...

Fidencio Marbella talks to students from Sacred Heart School.


ambi: Have you guys talked about the Great Depression in school at all?


He tells them about art work created during the New Deal. Then he leads them back, to get a peek.


KIDS: I see the airplane. Giggles….I see the airplane.


The mural's now in the lab being restored. It will come back to Melrose Park in a few months, and this time, it will stay on display.


Thanks to Jennifer Lacey for contributing reporting to this story.

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