Park Ridge post office mural restored, unveiled
The unveiling and dedication of a historic Park Ridge mural that was saved from the former Park Ridge Post Office in 1970. It was acquired by the library in 2008 and volunteers raised money for its restoration. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 1, 2013 6:45AM
PARK RIDGE — The soft colors and larger-than-life characters depict a historic event that would set the course for what would eventually become the northwest suburbs — including the city of Park Ridge.
But when the 68-year-old mural first showed up at the Park Ridge Public Library four years ago, the scene wasn’t so vividly apparent.
“It was in a distressing state, with millions of little cracks of shellac,” recalled Library Trustee Patricia Lofthouse. “You could barely see the colors or the subject.”
“The cash register was just clicking,” said John Schmidt, another library trustee, as he recalled the thoughts going through his mind that day. “Are we ever going to be able to restore this? Are we ever going to be able to gather the money? And we sure did because we had such dynamic people who were really interested in it.”
It took four years of fundraising and extensive restoration work, but the mural, entitled “Indians Cede the Land,” is finally complete and again on public display, this time on the second floor of the Park Ridge Library, 20 S. Prospect Ave. A special program on the history of the mural and the partnerships and donations that helped support it was held Feb. 22 before an invitation-only crowd who saw the piece “unveiled” for the first time since its renovation. A public viewing was held the following afternoon.
“To see it now is truly a miracle,” said Lofthouse, who was credited with initiating the push to bring the artwork brought back to life.
“I felt we had been given a wonderful, historic artifact that reflected the social thought of its time I knew we couldn’t let it go,” she told the crowd.
Painted by American artist George Melville Smith, the mural depicts a local land treaty between Native Americans and the U.S. government. It hung above the postmaster’s office in the former Park Ridge Post Office at 164 S. Prospect Ave. from 1940 to 1970, but when the post office relocated, the mural was saved and put in storage by Maine East High School history teacher Paul Carlson. Upon Carlson’s death in 2008, family members donated the mural to the library and a new project for members of the Library Board and staff was born.
Over $30,000 was raised for the restoration and mounting of the mural through community donations, fundraisers, a partnership with the Park Ridge Historical Society and grants from the Illinois Arts Council and Park Ridge Cultural Arts Council. Shaker Furniture in Uptown Park Ridge recreated the wooden doorframe, complete with the word “postmaster,” that was below the center of the mural when it hung in the post office.
“It was four years of hard work, but I’m so pleased the community has come together to do this,” said Anthony Borrelli, a member of the restoration committee. Other committee members included Paul Adlaf, Jeff Caudill, Lofthouse, John Murphy, Nancy Pytel and Richard Van Metre.
Park Ridge resident Edith Kooyumjian, one of 54 Park Ridge Century Club members who helped support the restoration effort, last saw the mural when it still hung in the old post office.
“In the post office, that was a functional kind of area and so you really didn’t appreciate it the way we’ll be able to now,” she said.
Tom Patterson, Carlson’s stepson, also recalled seeing the mural when he was a child visiting the post office and said he was “awestruck” by it.
“The mural was rescued by someone who respected, honored and had a deep reverence for history,” Patterson said of his step-father, explaining that Carlson’s classroom was a “museum of historical artifacts” for his students to view and learn about.
“The mural becomes part of Paul Carlson’s legacy and it becomes part of yours as well, a gift to future generations of our town,” Patterson added.
Frances Hagemann, a Native American scholar and lecturer of Ojibwe ancestry, called the mural a “wonderful piece of American art history,” but cautioned that it not be considered an accurate portrayal of how native people reacted to the treaties that were made in the 19th Century. They did not give away their land happily, she said, as the hint of a proud smile on the face of one of the Indians seems to infer.
“We just have to be sure people understand the story it tells,” Hageman said of the mural. “It is one of romanticism, the noble savage of (Jean Jacques) Rousseau. There’s nothing wrong with that — as long as the story of the real Indian is also told.”
Hageman encouraged the library to establish a companion exhibit of Indian leaders, books on Native American history and even a copy of the type of treaty the mural depicts.
Historian Mary Emma Thompson, who has published books about the New Deal Public Art Program that led to the creation of American post office murals in the 1930s and 1940s, said one such mural in Clinton, Ill. was given an estimated value of $500,000. The “Indians Cede the Land” mural was painted for a commission of just $860, she said.