Walking into New York’s stately General Post Office in the Bronx, the first thing you notice are the murals. In 1938 the Roosevelt administration commissioned artist Ben Shahn to paint the walls of the cavernous lobby with 13 larger-than-life frescoes celebrating the American worker. The social-realist scenes, entitled Resources of America, depict dignified women and broad-backed men toiling on the farm and muscular factory employees operating looms and machinery.
The murals are among nearly 1,200 New Deal artworks that Shahn, Milton Avery, and scores of other artists created for post offices around the country under the Treasury’s Depression-era Section of Fine Arts program. Many are masterpieces that are worth more than the buildings they occupy. That makes them a peculiar problem as the distressed U.S. Postal Service prepares to shut down and sell off the Bronx post office and others decorated with historic murals that belong to the public.
It’s up to Dallan Wordekemper to protect the works from potential buyers who might knock them down or paint over them when they renovate the buildings into restaurants, condominiums, and retail stores. A USPS real estate specialist who oversees the nation’s New Deal post offices, Wordekemper doesn’t pretend to be an art connoisseur. “I figure every artist in the program is as important as the next,” he says. Since taking the job in 2003, he has kept watch over the collection and tracked down several works he discovered had gone missing. Two years ago, Wordekemper retrieved a painting by Gustaf Dalstrom, George Rogers Clark Conferring With Indians Near Herrin, that had been thrown away when the post office in Herrin, Ill., was renovated in 1968. A postal worker had found it and taken it home. “His son had it hanging in his dorm room,” says Elizabeth Kendall, director of Parma Conservation, a Chicago company that restored the reclaimed painting.
The Postal Service is trying to find buyers who are willing to agree to unusual terms: The USPS sells the building but maintains ownership of the artwork. It then lends the art to the purchaser for 25 years at no charge. In exchange, the new owner must allow the public into the former post office to view the paintings. Ideally, Wordekemper also gets the buyer to cover the cost of restoring murals that have dulled over the years.
The Postal Service struck just such an agreement with movie producer Joel Silver, who paid $7 million in 2011 for the Venice Post Office in Los Angeles, which he converted into his company’s headquarters. As part of the deal, Silver is spending $100,000 to restore Story of Venice by Edward Biberman. Wordekemper says Silver promised to provide public access to the painting six days a year.
“The community is very unhappy with it,” says Linda Lucks, president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, who argues the painting is public property and shouldn’t be hidden away most of the time. She says she’ll lobby Silver to offer more frequent viewings. Six days is “the minimum,” Wordekemper says. “I think Joel Silver is going to offer it a lot more than six days.” Silver declined to comment.
The government is having a more difficult time finding a suitable buyer in the Bronx. Laura Katzman, an art history professor at James Madison University and a specialist in New Deal art, says Shahn’s murals, painted with his wife Bernarda Bryson Shahn, are “among the best” from the period. Yet they are scratched and dirty and in need of costly refurbishment. No one has yet come forward to save them.
The USPS might attempt to sell the building and lease back the lobby so it can keep possession of the paintings, Wordekemper says. Determined to preserve the artwork, he’s also looked into moving the murals to another location. That would be a massive undertaking, since the scenes are painted in egg tempera directly on the plaster walls. “We’d have to demolish a lot of the building in order to make it work,” he says. “It’s not out of the question. It’s just that the cost would be huge.”