WPA-Era Post Office Murals by American Realist Painter, Ben Shahn, Threatened

Richard Friswell
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Detail of Shahn mural, Bronx Post Office

ARTES Magazine was recently made aware of a possible threat to a national treasure. As part of its austerity measures, the United States Post Office is in the process of selling its Bronx General Post Office building, in New York City. While the exterior of the building has been identified as a national landmark, a series of murals painted by the Depression Era Social Realist painter, Ben Shahn, have not been so designated. This means that any future owner of the building would be under no obligation to protect and preserve them. ARTES magazine has written extensively on the importance of the Roosevelt New Deal initiatives to employ artists, photographers and writers to reflect on the American story, and Shahn’s mural series (1939), The Resources of America, qualifies as a classic example of that effort.

Please read the following letter by the artist’s son, Jonathan Shahn, Instructor of Sculpture, at The Arts Students League of New York and Laura Katzman, Associate Professor of Art History, at James Madison University, in which they outline the challenge and the call-to-action required by anyone who cares about our nation’s artistic and cultural heritage. artes fine arts magazine

Dear Colleagues;                                                                                           April 10, 2013

We are writing to you because of your expertise in the field of public art. Many of you know that the Bronx Generbronx walt whitman (2)al Post Office on the Grand Concourse includes significant New Deal murals by Ben Shahn (with Bernarda Bryson Shahn). Commissioned by the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture in 1939, these murals, entitled The Resources of America, have been an integral part of the Bronx Post Office and its local community from its inception. You may also be aware that the Bronx Post Office building is scheduled to be sold. Because the interior of the building lacks the landmark designation that the exterior possesses, the Shahn murals face possible damage and/or destruction. We are therefore seeking your support to ensure the future existence and preservation of these historic murals.

Above, right: In this Shahn mural, Walt Whitman points to a blackboard with words from one of his poems: “There is no final reliance but upon us; / Democracy rests finally upon us.”

Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, has been working with Congressman José E. Serrano of the Bronx to ensure the preservation of this important building and its artwork(see Serrano’s letter attached). Given the urgency of the situation, we are now asking Robert Tierney, Chair of the New York City Landmarks Commission, to landmark the lobby of the Post Office, including the murals.

Would you please consider writing a cogent letter or email to Mr. Tierney, stressing the significance of the murals and asking him to landmark the lobby with its murals as an interior landmark? We offer in a separate attached document some factual points, with which most of you are already familiar. In your letters, feel free to draw on any of these points and/or write whatever you think would be most useful to the campaign to save the murals. It can be as simple as “please landmark the lobby and the important Shahn murals of the Bronx Post Office.” Any message should be sent as soon as possible.

Letters can be addressed to:

Robert Tierney, Chair

NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

1 Centre Street, 9th floor

New York, New York 10007

Emails can be sent to Mr. Tierney at: rtierney@lpc.nyc.gov and copied to Peg Breen, President, The New York Landmarks Conservancy at: pegbreen@nylandmarks.org

We thank you in advance for taking time out of your busy schedules to support this important cause. Your expertise and involvement would be deeply appreciated.

Sincerely yours,

Jonathan Shahn, Instructor of Sculpture

The Arts Students League of New York

jonathanshahn@gmail.com

Laura Katzman, Associate Professor of Art History

James Madison University

katzmalr@jmu.edu

The Ben Shahn Bronx Post Office Murals

Historic:www.artesmagazine.com Ben Shahn’s Bronx Post Office murals exemplify the Great Depression-era New Deal government- sponsored art projects, which gave American artists opportunities to maintain their livelihoods while putting their art at the service of social uplift and social reform. These projects speak to the values of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration that sought to utilize public art to celebrate America’s rural heartland and promote its industrial ingenuity.

Educational: The Resources of America murals reflect a central theme of this era—the nobility of the American worker. The murals synthesize scenes that Shahn witnessed in his travels around the country—rural labor in the cotton fields (left) and work in textile factories (below, right) and steel mills. In their day, the murals would have brought to light images of the American Midwest and South that many residents of the Bronx had never seen. The murals therefore signify a far-reaching pedagogic vision as well as the educational possibilities of federal support for the arts.

Artistic: The Resources of America exemplifies the successful integration of art and archit20130201Postal5-articleInlineecture in a public building. It is equally a great example of “buon fresco,” a mural technique from the Renaissance revived by Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera with whom Shahn and others studied. Shahn was at the forefront of this revival in America; he was also one of the leading socially-engaged artists of his generation. Among the nation’s distinguished muralists, Shahn won three mural commissions from the most prestigious federal agency to hold competitions, the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture. These include The Resources of America; The Meaning of Social Security in the Health and Human Services Building in Washington, D.C., and The Four Freedoms in the Woodhaven Branch Post-Office in Jamaica, Queens. From the Farm Security Administration, he received a commission for the Jersey Homesteads mural, installed in the former community center of Roosevelt, New Jersey.

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Artist, Ben Shahn (c.1935)

Shahn’s artwork (as a painter, graphic artist, and photographer) is well-represented in major museums across the United States, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the National Gallery of Art; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and San Francisco’s De Young Museum. As early as 1947, Shahn was the youngest living artist to have received a retrospective at MoMA.

Regional: While Ben Shahn was nationally and internationally recognized in his day and for subsequent decades, New York was central to his personal and professional identity, and to his formation and success as an artist. Shahn was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, developed artistically in Greenwich Village, and was educated at City College, New York University, the National Academy of Design, and the Arts Students League. He assisted Diego Rivera on the ill-fated Rockefeller mural, and won commissions for never-executed public projects at Riker’s Island Penitentiary and Central Park Casino. Shahn’s work appeared in New York-based magazines such as The Nation, The New Republic, and Harper’s. His art was represented by influential New York galleries, including the Downtown Gallery and Kennedy Galleries. Even as a resident of Roosevelt, New Jersey for 30 years, Ben Shahn remained a devoted New Yorker his entire life.

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Learn more about the life and times of artist, Ben Shahn here:

 

To become more familiar with the political efforts surrounding preservation of these priceless works of art, consider the press release from Congressman José E. Serrano, representing the Fifteenth District of New York, where the Bronx post office is located:

Congressman José E. Serrano

Representing the Fifteenth District of New York

PRESS RELEASE

For Immediate Release

March 18, 2013

CONTACT: Philip Schmidt, (202) 225-4361

Serrano Calls on Postmaster to Suspend Bronx Post Office Sale

The Bronx, NY – March 18, 2013 – Congressman José E. Serrano recently sent a letter to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe asking him to suspend the plan to sell the historic Bronx General Post Office. Congressman Serrano asked that the Postmaster General restart the public consultation process so that the community’s wishes are taken into account, provide a detailed plan so that the historically significant elements of the building can be preserved, and present a strategy so that mail service is unaffected. The text of the letter is below.

March 15, 2013

Mr. Patrick Donahoe

Postmaster General

475 L’Enfant Plaza SW

Washington, D.C. 20260

Dear Postmaster General Donahoe:

I write to urge the immediate suspension of the Postal Service’s announced intent to sell the historic Bronx General Post Office (GPO) building located at 588 Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The Postal Service has not adequately considered public input, has not detailed a sufficient process to preserve this historic landmark, and has no specific plans to maintain service in the community.

As you know, the Bronx GPO has been a landmark in our community since its completion in 1937. Over the years it has been a Post Office, a processing facility, and community meeting place. Since the announcement of the Postal Service’s intent to sell the Bronx GPO, I have heard numerous complaints about various aspects of the proposed sale, all of which I believe indicate that the current process is fatally flawed. I have outlined at least three objections that I have heard from members of the Bronx community:

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A sculpture by Henry Kreis ornaments the south end of the General Post Office facade, which stretches along the Grand Concourse from East 149th to East 150th Street. Photo: Dave Dunlap/NYT.

• Lack of Community Input: There appear to be numerous deficiencies with the Postal Service’s process for announcing and soliciting community input about the proposed sale of the Bronx GPO. Relevant stakeholders were provided with little to no notice about a public meeting, thus giving them inadequate opportunity to provide input. Moreover, the meeting took place on Wednesday, February 6, at 10:00 am, which meant that many interested parties were unable to attend. Lastly, the notice of the 30 day comment period was only provided to those individuals attending the meeting- thus foreclosing another avenue for the public to provide their views on this proposed sale.

• Historic Value: The Bronx GPO is on the historic building in the Bronx, and is both a City Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. However, neither designation currently protects the lobby area, where a series of artistically significant murals, collectively entitled Resources in America, are located. Moreover, there has been no indication that the Postal Service intends to follow the requirements of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). I believe the current proposal does not provide sufficient protection to these historic artworks by Ben Shahn, and I am concerned that the public could lose access to these works or worse still a future owner could damage or destroy these valuable murals without a more rigorous review process.

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Shahn farm scene murals flank passport office at Bronx P.O. Photo: Dave Dunlap/NYT.

• Service Maintenance: While there is apparently a comprehensive plan in place to sell the Bronx GPO, there is little to no plan in place to replace the services currently provided by the location. Other than a vague promise that there will be a new postal location opened in the neighborhood, there does not appear to have been any steps taken to open that new location. Moreover, there appears to have been no discussion with the community of their needs in choosing a new location. Lastly, almost no consideration has been given to maintaining the level of service in the current location, the Bronx General Post Office.

I believe that these concerns indicate serious problems involved in the current process being used to consider the sale of the Bronx GPO. I hope that you will take these concerns seriously, and rethink your strategy. Rather than moving forward with a fatally flawed sales process, the Postal Service should take the time to truly solicit the advice of the Bronx community, to fully comply with its obligations under Section 106 of the NHPA, and to ensure that no harm is done to this historically significant property in any proposal. If, after a true consultative process, the Postal Service still decides to put the building up for sale, then there must be a serious proposal to ensure that the historic murals in the building are preserved, and that service in the neighborhood does not suffer.

I can assure you that should the decision be made to proceed with the sale without adequate public input and consideration of the above concerns, I will continue to oppose this process. Thank you for your consideration of these issues, and I look forward to the Postal Service addressing these concerns by providing a truly participatory process surrounding the future of the historic Bronx GPO.

Sincerely,

José E. Serrano

Member of Congress

Congressman José E. Serrano has represented The Bronx in Congress since 1990.

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To learn more about the WPA and its influence on the modern American art genre, read the ARTES article at: http://www.artesmagazine.com/2011/03/fdr%e2%80%99s-%e2%80%98new-deal%e2%80%99-and-the-works-progress-administration-wpa-helps-define-modern-art-in-america/

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