When the Chicago Daily News dedicated its new office tower at Madison and Canal on July 8, 1929, the 53-year-old newspaper had reached the peak of its influence. It had a famed foreign bureau, with offices as far away as Moscow and Peking, and it had spawned the careers of such authors as Ben Hecht, Eugene Field, Finley Peter Dunne, and “poet and staff writer” Carl Sandburg. The sleek art deco skyscraper reflected the paper’s efforts to elevate the image of journalism and stood in stark contrast to the rival Tribune’s stodgy Gothic headquarters.
A special edition of the paper announced the creation of an interior mural by John Warner Norton, a longtime Chicago artist who had been commissioned to paint the mural in the concourse linking the building to the Chicago and North Western Railway station. Reporter Marguerite Williams heralded Norton’s work as “a new kind of mural painting, born of the symbols of modern life and the magnitude of modern building….There, on the ceiling of a thoroughfare 180 feet long, will be read the romance of the modern newspaper ingeniously told by multifarious shapes and symbols–animate and mechanistic.”
The Daily News occupied the first six floors of the building until 1960, when Marshall Field IV purchased the paper and moved its operations to the Sun-Times Building. The Daily News Building was then renamed Riverside Plaza, as it’s still known today. Norton’s mural–a highly stylized depiction of a day in the life of a newspaper, formally titled Printing the News, Distributing the News, Transporting the News–remained behind as a romantic and visually dynamic symbol of Chicago journalism in the Roaring 20s.
For 63 years those who stopped to gaze at the mural 30 feet overhead risked getting run over by the thousands of commuters who used the concourse every workday. Though faded by time and smoke, the artwork’s graphic symbols and semiabstract geometric forms could still convey, as Williams wrote, the “rhythmic teamwork of man and machine that makes the modern newspaper possible” and the “paraphernalia of news-gathering that has shrunk the globe into one neighborhood.”
Now those who come to look at Norton’s masterpiece, one of the midwest’s most famous architectural paintings, will find an unbroken surface of white paint, all traces of the mural cleanly expunged, as if it never existed. Three years ago the mural was removed for restoration, and now some wonder if it will ever return.
“The building is a wonderful example of commercial architecture, and it’s really not complete without that mural,” says Richard Murray, an expert on American mural painting and a senior curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. “The mural breaks completely with the past and includes the modernist notions of painting, futurist notions. It’s not a static design. What’s presented in the mural is actually going on in the building simultaneously. You just don’t come across things like that. It’s an extraordinary piece of work stylistically, and a real benchmark of American murals.”
The 3,330-square-foot canvas–which had been painted on 19 panels in Norton’s studio and then affixed to the building’s vaulted ceiling–was stripped from its site in the fall of 1993 to be restored at Conrad Schmitt Studios, a Milwaukee-area historic conservation and decoration firm. At the time, the action met with vociferous objections from local art conservators and preservation activists. They complained that the mural should have been restored on-site. They also questioned the qualifications of the Wisconsin company.
As it turns out, Conrad Schmitt Studios never did the job. It returned the mural to Chicago in 1995. Today, the 19 panels languish in an art moving company’s warehouse, accumulating storage costs for Equity Office Properties Limited Liability Corporation, the managing agent of Riverside Plaza. Owned in part by real estate tycoon Sam Zell, who has his office in the building, the firm has maintained that it wants to investigate its options before committing time and money to the project.
“We love the building and we love the mural–it’s an integral feature of the building,” says David Crawford, a senior vice president with Equity Office Properties. “What we’re trying to do is make sure of the best and right thing for the mural, and the best and right thing for the building. We want to have a better and thorough consensus on a course of action for the near future.”
But time may be running out. A group of preservationists who were allowed to see the mural in storage last year say it may have been damaged during removal, making restoration more complex and costly.
One Chicago art conservator who evaluated a panel from the Daily News mural six years ago estimates that this “mother of all restoration jobs” could take years and cost a million dollars or more. “This is Norton’s best mural, the Sistine chapel of Chicago,” says Rick Strilky of Rick Strilky Fine Art Restoration, who has restored or remounted three local Norton murals since the 1980s. “But I fear the worst. How long will the panels be rolled up and left to degrade? Sitting there, it’s getting worse.”
John Warner Norton often worked in tandem with some of Chicago’s best-known architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Holabird & Root, and Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. In her article on the opening of the Daily News Building, Williams wrote of Norton’s philosophy in decorating modern office buildings: “The prevailing thought is that art is being democratized by commerce, just as it was by the church in the middle ages when the stories of the Bible were told in stone and paint so that the masses could understand.”
In the 1920s, at the height of his powers, Norton was regarded by many as the nation’s foremost mural painter. But he’s perhaps best known today as an educator, having taught for nearly two decades at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Some of his students–including John Steuart Curry, Tom Lea, Theodore Roszak, and Archibald Motley Jr.–became noteworthy artists in their own right. Norton’s dedication to teaching may have prevented him from becoming a more famous artist. He also died just before the beginning of the WPA’s mural program, which could have made him a national name.
“It’s very interesting that the month after Norton died, in February 1934, the Federal Art Project was instituted,” says the Smithsonian’s Murray. “A whole new crop of painters–most of whom had never painted murals before–gave murals to post offices and courthouses all over the country. But Norton, by far the most experienced muralist in the midwest and maybe in the country, didn’t have a chance to participate.”
Norton was among the first modernists to take up the challenges of mural painting within the context of the new commercial architecture, bridging the gap between beaux-arts decoration and New Deal populism. But Norton didn’t become interested in mural painting until he was past the age of 30. Born in Lockport in 1876, he attended prep school in Ossining, New York, and began studying law at Harvard in 1893. He had to drop out after his father’s grain mill suffered a serious financial setback, and eventually he took a job as a cowboy on a ranch near Tucson. In 1897 Norton was back in Illinois, enrolling in his first classes at the School of the Art Institute. But a year later he left school again, this time to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders as part of the U.S. Volunteer Cavalry.
After finally graduating from the School of the Art Institute in 1902, Norton worked as an illustrator of books, magazines, and advertisements, mostly for the Santa Fe Railroad. He traveled frequently throughout the western United States, once by covered wagon with his wife Madge Washburn Frances. Some of Norton’s murals would reflect the influence of these frontier trips, with images and themes drawn from the stories of American Indians and early settlers. He’d later travel throughout Mexico, Europe, Morocco, and the West Indies and take a studio in Paris.
Norton abandoned his career as an illustrator by 1910 and began teaching at the School of the Art Institute. He also started getting mural work. Some of his early commissions–Navajo, for the Cliff Dwellers Club atop Orchestra Hall (1909-’10), and historical works for the Fuller Park Auditorium, 45th and Princeton (1913-’14), and the Hamilton Park Fieldhouse, 72nd and Normal (1916)–were influenced by 19th-century American mural pioneers, many of whom were trained in Europe. The 1893 Columbian Exposition had sparked interest in the medium’s potential, but it would be decades before American muralists broke free from traditional historical and mythological themes, which were usually treated in a strongly decorative and allegorical manner.
Norton experimented with the medium, showing a debt to modern European painting and infusing his murals with novel compositions and spatial ideas. Early on he took a liking to Japanese art, particularly the color woodcuts of Hokusai, the 19th-century book illustrator. Norton’s wall decorations for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Gardens, built in 1914 at 60th and Cottage Grove, revealed a marked Oriental influence. But Midway Gardens was destroyed a mere 15 years later, and the murals were apparently lost. Such was the risk of architectural painting. Norton’s final commission–several works for the Hall of Science at the 1933 World’s Fair–was also lost to the wrecking ball.
Norton painted murals in banks, factories, courthouses, museums, and university buildings in such cities as Philadelphia, Sioux City, Topeka, Beloit, South Bend, Birmingham, and Saint Paul. But much of his major work was done in and around Chicago. In the 1920s, art deco freed the skyscraper from the neoclassical forms that had dominated architecture since the Columbian Exposition. Holabird & Root, leading practitioners of the art deco style, frequently tapped Norton to do modernist–as opposed to historically rooted–wall decorations. His designs mirrored the firm’s sleek, streamlined interiors, and his sensibility was also more in tune with the speed-conscious machine age.
From 1928 to 1930, Norton’s work became an important element in several downtown buildings. He completed “Pagan Paradise,” a series of murals for the Tavern Club on the 25th floor of 333 N. Michigan; it won the 1929 Gold Medal of Honor for Mural Painting from the Architectural League of New York. He also painted Ceres in the Chicago Board of Trade Building, 141 W. Jackson, and a map of the U.S. for the Chicago Motor Club Building (now Wacker Tower), 68 E. Wacker Place. All three of these works have been restored in recent years (along with the murals at Fuller Park). Markwell Properties, which is currently converting the 1928 Wacker Tower into condominiums, even uses the 29-foot-wide mural as a selling point in their print ads. “It’s a beautiful piece of art,” says Markwell president Sam Roti. “We’re proud of the mural and definitely want to keep it.”
Yet because Norton sought to achieve a subtle unity between art and architecture, many of his murals don’t draw attention to themselves. This may be another reason why his name isn’t more well-known outside of a small circle of art historians and mural aficionados.
“His murals don’t jump out at you,” says Jim Zimmer of the Illinois State Museum Lockport Gallery. “He perfected the practice of synthesizing mural decoration with the surrounding architecture and customized the elements of his craft–subject matter, composition, color–to harmonize with the needs of the space’s inhabitants.”
Few have done as much as Zimmer to rescue Norton’s legacy. He spent nearly three years organizing a Norton exhibit that debuted at the Lockport Gallery in November 1991 before heading to the Illinois Art Gallery in Chicago and the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. The show featured paintings, prints, drawings, and illustrations, as well as photos of murals and their working sketches (including a preliminary oil painting for the Daily News mural). Four actual murals were also displayed, either in part or in whole. Two were from a series on the months of the year at the Helen Peirce Elementary School, 1423 W. Bryn Mawr; before Zimmer contacted the school, its teachers and administrators had no idea who did the paintings. The exhibition, the first devoted to Norton in Chicago since a memorial show was held at the Art Institute in 1934, stimulated a rediscovery of Norton’s contributions to modern art and architecture.
Zimmer, who served as director of the Sioux City Art Center for four years before returning to Lockport last fall, was dismayed to hear that the Daily News mural had not yet been restored and reinstalled at Riverside Plaza.
“There have been nothing but question marks, lots of unanswered questions surrounding the whole thing,” says Zimmer. “It’s no big surprise it would take many years to get completed. But to find out that nothing at all has happened–that’s the sad part. There needs to be some direction. We don’t want people to forget about this.”
Tom Lea was 19 years old when he dropped out of the School of the Art Institute in late 1926 to become Norton’s mural assistant, a job that would see him through the grimmest days of the Depression. He helped paint all of Norton’s commissions for Holabird & Root, including those at county courthouses in Birmingham and Saint Paul. Lea also assisted Norton on a wall map in the main reading room of Loyola University’s Elizabeth Cudahy Memorial Library. “He was a very fine man and a great teacher,” says Lea, who, at 89, now lives in El Paso. “I was very devoted to his memory. I still am.”
Soon after Norton died of stomach cancer in 1934, Lea inherited his mentor’s oak easel and embarked on his own career as a noted Texas painter, novelist, and Life magazine artist-correspondent during World War II. His 1968 autobiography, A Picture Gallery, opens with Lea and Norton at work on the Daily News mural. Norton was then living with his family in the Tree Studios Building, but he rented a large, run-down loft on Lake Street overlooking the el tracks for the purpose of doing the mural. The panel-by-panel task took them nine months to complete.
Lea recalls the painstaking process. Working up to ten hours a day, six days a week, they stretched, sized, and primed more than 3,700 square feet of canvas before any outlines were drawn or painting had started. But Norton was up to the physical challenge. Though in his early 50s, he was a strong, burly, and athletic man whose broken nose could be traced back to a football injury. He proved to be as agile as Lea, more than three decades his junior, as the two clambered up and down scaffolds and ladders countless times daily.
“He’d make the sketch, and I’d mix the paints and put the colors on the canvas,” explains Lea. “Everything had to conform exactly to the forms and the colors on his design.”
The artists believed their mural was revolutionary, a radical departure from prevailing tradition. “It had no allegories, no cornucopias, no garlands, no muscled male figures denoting noble strength, no symbolical ladies draped in cheesecloth,” wrote Lea. “Instead, Norton made a design…based entirely upon the graphic shapes of the many materials and many machines involved daily with the gathering, printing, and transporting of a modern newspaper’s news.”
The mural’s energy suggests the animated Front Page era (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play opened in 1928). Spread throughout its three main sections–gathering, printing, and transporting–are elaborate geometric and crisscrossing diagonal patterns, with an array of shapes and figures: editors, proof sheets, a camera, an ink bottle, a reporter’s notebook, a typewriter, telephone dials, tickertape, telegraph wires, a microphone, Linotype operators, cylinders, paper rolls, folding machines, news boys, airplanes, trains, horses, and bicycle wheels. Smaller triangles contain rows of people, who symbolize readers. The mural’s dominant colors are reds, greens, grays, and blues.
Lea recalls having to retouch parts of
the mural after it was attached to the concourse ceiling in early 1930. Since the ceiling was vaulted–not flat–the designs
didn’t always “register,” or match precisely. Norton had used a diagonal scheme so that the design would play off, or “rhyme,” with the concourse’s piers, which had been staggered to accommodate the railroad tracks that ran beneath the building.
“All his work was done in the studio and then installed on site, like it was one giant jigsaw puzzle,” says Zimmer. “There’s a lot of science involved with that. You really had to have vision.”
Train fumes, tobacco smoke, and time all took their toll on the mural. Seven years ago the roof developed a small leak, and water had seeped into some of the panels, one of which eventually lost its adhesion. (Preservationists say the panel was hanging loose, but building officials maintain it had fallen.) In the summer of 1990, maintenance staffers with the corporate engineering division placed it in storage. This panel would be missing from the ceiling for the next three years.
Riverside Plaza was then controlled by First Office Management, which became Equity Office Properties in the fall of 1993 and Equity Office Properties Limited Liability Corporation last year. Building officials began looking into what it would take to restore the mural. (The roof and the ceiling had to be rehabilitated first.) They contacted Bill Leisher, the late director of the Art Institute’s conservation department, who in turn referred them to Rick Strilky. At the time, Strilky was restoring Navajo, Norton’s realistic wall painting of Navajo Indians at the Cliff Dwellers Club.
When a representative of First Office Management called in September 1990 for advice on the Daily News panel, Strilky said he’d be willing to take a look. He went to Riverside Plaza and was led into a basement boiler room. The panel was folded on the floor like an accordion.
“Water had penetrated it,” says Strilky. “Part of it had delaminated from the ceiling, and the janitors had used staple guns to reattach it. It had started to unstaple. But that was not a problem. We could fix that. If you have a viewing distance of, say, 30 feet, the level of retouching doesn’t have to be that good. I said, ‘Let me test it and see if I can come up with a proper adhesive.'”
Strilky took the panel and hoisted it up into his second-floor Lincoln Square studio. He says the mural’s lead white and adhesive accounted for about half of the panel’s 150-pound weight. Lead white is a preparation that’s painted on the verso, or back, of a canvas before an adhesive–most likely, in this case, an aqueous paste–is applied so that the artwork can stick to a surface.
Strilky then “tested” the canvas, directly applying various solvents to an eight-by-three-inch section of the nearly 200-square-foot panel. Solvent testing is done to determine the cost, effort, and technology that’s required to safely clean an artwork; a conservator wants a solution that will cause the least amount of abrasion and solvent action. “You try to find the least deleterious method to remove what is deemed necessary to remove,” Strilky explains. “You go with the weakest solutions first, and then proceed.”
Test results on the panel weren’t encouraging, however. Strilky realized that it would be no ordinary project. Owing to humidity, grime from coal and diesel fumes, and paint layers (including an unidentified surface coating), the canvas folio, or front, would be “unbelievably difficult to clean, and I didn’t have a cleaning solution I felt good about for a piece of that size. When you’re talking thousands of square feet, it better be something you can do efficiently.”
The verso presented problems too. “Removing the adhesive wasn’t an issue, though there can be some contraction or expansion of the canvas,” Strilky says. “Removing the lead white is the difficult part. For a mural of this size, you’d probably need a 55-gallon drum of methylene chloride,” a highly toxic stripping agent not commonly used by art conservators. “Then it’s a question of what adhesive you’d need. There’s a finite group of adhesives in this field, based on their working characteristics and drying time. If you’re going to hang it back, it needs a particular adhesive. The liability issue, the safety issue, is huge.”
Strilky realized from the outset that restoring and reattaching the Daily News mural might be too risky and labor-intensive for his small company. He specialized mainly in easel paintings. Though he had restored WPA-era murals, they were nowhere near the size of the Daily News mural. This was like one impaired painting multiplied a thousand times. There were other firms that had the tools and expertise to take on such a costly, time-consuming task.
“You’re also talking about an extremely sophisticated installation,” Strilky says. “Registration is the problem. Every contour has to line up–that’s what gives lyricism and rhythm to the design. I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a month just to put it up, and a week to register. Taking it down is easy. Everything else is difficult. If [the owner] was smart, he would get one firm to do it all.”
Since Strilky knew the restoration wasn’t impossible, he became intrigued by the challenge–a job like this would only come along once in a lifetime. He could find the chemical technology and design a treatment to complete the work, as long as it was on his terms. With a staff of four trained conservators working on other projects at the same time, Strilky estimated it could take about ten years to bring the artwork back to its original state; including remounting work, he figured it would cost about $50,000 a panel–“maybe a million bucks,” he says.
But if this was not acceptable, then Strilky would be willing to work as a consultant. He’d help First Office Management to find a proper conservation firm. And he’d do it free of charge. “I have a stake in this because I’m a Chicagoan,” he says, “and because this is a Chicago icon, a great piece of the city’s heritage.”
Strilky’s a straight shooter whose accent makes him sound more like a ward heeler than an art conservator with 20 years of experience. He’s restored such classic Illinois paintings as The Railsplitter, the picture of Abraham Lincoln at the Chicago Historical Society. Strilky’s work on old and damaged canvases–for such regular clients as the Terra Museum of American Art and the Vanderpoel Art Association (owners of Chicago’s second-oldest painting collection)–often runs into the five figures.
The 40-year-old Strilky graduated from Northern Illinois University with a degree in art and art history. He wanted to be an artist, but switched tracks after apprenticing with a conservator in Munich. In 1977 he started his own restoration company, housed in his Lincoln Avenue lab since 1988. The spacious workshop, cluttered with easels, might resemble an atelier were it not for such high-tech equipment as stereo-zoom and polarized-light microscopes and low-pressure vacuum tables.
In recent years, Strilky has restored Norton’s “Pagan Paradise” murals for the Tavern Club and Navajo–once again–after the painting was slightly damaged following its reinstallation in the Cliff Dwellers’ new perch on the 22nd floor of the Borg-Warner Building. One of Strilky’s more memorable jobs wasn’t a restoration–though it involved another Norton mural.
Ceres, the painting of the Roman goddess of agriculture, was removed from the Chicago Board of Trade in 1974 and put into storage while the trading room was divided horizontally to provide space for the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Some years later, the work was restored by Lou Pomerantz, the renowned private restorer who set up the Art Institute’s first technical conservation lab in the 1950s. In 1983, Pomerantz, assisted by Strilky and other conservators, remounted Ceres on a panel, encased it in a free-standing art deco metal frame, and reinstalled it in the Board of Trade’s new atrium designed by Murphy/Jahn.
Strilky was saddened by Pomerantz’s death at 68 in May 1988. Some have speculated that the cumulative effects of working with chemicals such as methylene chloride may have been a contributing factor. “I had a great deal of respect for him,” says Strilky. “He was the patron saint of local conservators and our ethical standard bearer.”
The Daily News panel sat rolled and upright in Strilky’s studio through the summer of 1991. He considered bidding on the restoration job as he dealt with a succession of building representatives who either called or stopped by to inspect the panel.
“The first guy I talked to had some brains–he understood the difficulties and had done his research,” says Strilky. “I said, ‘This is way beyond anyone in this area. We could do one or two [panels] a year–take one out, work on it, put it back in, take one out…but we don’t have the staff to take down the whole thing and do it all at once. For that you’d need a major international company, a good company with 20 or 30 people. There may be none in Chicago, maybe none in the U.S. If you want to do it piecemeal, I can handle it. Otherwise, it’s way above me.’
“He was looking at it like me,” says Strilky. “He had the expanded view about going to a national or international level. But they took him off it.” Others followed. “They were mostly corporate cogs, middle-management idiots, who were completely absolutely unqualified to make critical conservation decisions. They were just trying to protect their jobs. Maybe they didn’t like hearing it would be a big problem, that it was going to cost a lot of money and be a big responsibility.”
After a few months, Strilky says, First Office Management told him that they were going to do a total (rather than a piece by piece) restoration of the mural, and they’d have to remove all the panels from the ceiling. He warned them that removal would cause additional damage.
“Once you detach a large mural from its particular site it can cause an entirely new set of problems,” says Frank Zaccari, director of conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s extremely difficult to restore and remount something of that size. The best thing to do would be to reattach the piece that’s loose and restore it in its original state.”
Strilky then decided not to bid on the project. “I was freed up by not being a bidder,” he says, “because then I became an advocate.”
Meanwhile, First Office Management continued to investigate its options. The company turned to Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisconsin, to do an initial evaluation of the mural to see if it could be restored and put back in the concourse. If Schmitt felt it could do the job, then it would be invited to make a bid. First Office Management called Strilky to ask if he’d allow Schmitt representatives to examine the panel in his studio.
Strilky was surprised. Art conservation, he says, is a tight-knit field–everybody knows everybody else. But he’d never heard of the company before.
Founded in 1889, Conrad Schmitt Studios specializes in the renovation and redecoration of historic building interiors, including the conservation of murals. Their restorations have included the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the Netherland Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, the Detroit Institute of Arts auditorium, and the Grain Exchange and the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. In Chicago, they have restored the interior of the Uptown Theater and a 17th-century Italian painting at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, 3121 W. Jackson. They also restored a series of murals painted in 1841 by Leon Pomarede in Saint Patrick’s Church, New Orleans; that was an on-site project.
Strilky unrolled the Daily News panel and showed it to the two men from Schmitt. He says the pair told him that they’d never been in a restoration lab before. “I said, ‘Don’t you want to see the results of the solvent testing, front and back?’ But they didn’t look at the results. What did they know? They’re decorators.”
Strilky made some phone calls to colleagues, including Anton Rajer, the world-renowned mural conservator based in Madison. Rajer had worked on the recent restoration of the Sistine chapel. Strilky says Rajer told him that Schmitt had recently bid low on a commission to restore murals inside the Wisconsin State Capitol. Several art conservators then met with the state legislature and persuaded them to award the commission to someone else. Rajer got the contract.
When the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page story on the Daily News mural controversy on October 25, 1993, that anecdote was passed along by James DeYoung, a conservator for the Milwaukee Art Museum. “I’m really surprised that they [Conrad Schmitt Studios] are working with murals with artistic historical value,” DeYoung told the Tribune, “and that they are not deferring to people with stronger historical art knowledge than they have.”
Strilky called First Office Management and laid out a plan. “I offered to evaluate bids, to analyze techniques and treatments, gratis. I’d get a blue-ribbon panel of institutional conservators–Rajer, Zaccari–who could act as an oversight committee to help them understand the complexity of the bidding and the process. I said, ‘This group of volunteers will help you for nothing. They’re disinterested parties–they’re not going to bid. This is our greatest mural. Let’s do it right.'”
When his offer was rejected, Strilky was baffled. “Why won’t the company utilize free information from me and others?” He began to suspect that money might be the deciding issue. “People like Zell fancy themselves philanthropists. I just don’t understand why he’s taking it out on this poor mural. I don’t know in how many fields people are willing to work free for a billionaire.”
In May 1991 Strilky billed First Office Management for evaluation services and for having stored the Daily News panel for nine months. He says Riverside Plaza maintenance staffers didn’t pick it up until a few months later.
I first interviewed Strilky at his studio in September 1991. He was restoring a series of paintings by Alex Katz for the public art program of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. The paintings had been vandalized at the Harlem Avenue station on the O’Hare elevated line. In the middle of our conversation, Strilky pointed to the Daily News panel and said, “But this is the real story.” He then launched into an outraged spiel sprinkled with salty epithets.
In the summer of 1992, I talked to Cynthia Busse, a spokesperson for First Office Management, and Bernard Gruenke Jr., president of Conrad Schmitt Studios. But neither would comment on the status of the Daily News mural until a restoration contract was in place.
“We’ve been investigating in depth what it’s going to take to restore the panel and the rest of the mural,” explained Busse, who is now in a different department. “We’ve gone to great lengths to professionally prepare the panel for safe storage, and we’re taking great care to make sure the mural is restored properly and preserved for the long haul. When the job is done, it’ll be done correctly.” But, she added, the roof had to be rehabilitated and the concourse ceiling replastered first.
Gruenke said First Office Management “told us to place the contract on hold temporarily, and we don’t know when work is going to proceed. As of now, there still isn’t a clear-set method to go about doing the restoration, and there’s no clear-cut starting date. We don’t know the owner’s intentions yet, in terms of [whether] it’s just one panel or if it’s the whole mural. They told us to wait until the economy got better. But since it’s under private ownership, it might be a while.”
In a letter Gruenke added that his company was qualified to do the job: “We know the significance of the John Warner Norton mural and plan to handle it as a true piece of art.”
The remaining 18 panels of the Daily News mural were removed in October 1993 and were taken to Conrad Schmitt Studios in suburban Milwaukee. Because the mural was affixed to the ceiling plaster, it was important that the work be done with care.
A few weeks after the removal, Sam Zell defended his decision to go with the company. “The answer from my perspective,” he told the Tribune, “is that we’re not an expert on restorers, so we got advice and were told these [Conrad Schmitt] were the best in the business. We hired them to restore it, and we want them to put it back up into the building. We think it’s a treasure and a very valuable part of the building.” (Attempts to reach Zell for this article were unsuccessful.)
Schmitt evaluated the mural but didn’t restore it. And they won’t be putting it back up, either. In the summer of 1995, Schmitt returned the mural to Chicago, where it currently sits in a temperature-controlled warehouse. The matter is now entirely out of the company’s hands. (Gruenke wouldn’t return phone calls or respond to a letter.)
Strilky sees a bright side. “Now hopefully we’re back to square one.”
Bob Sideman’s interest in Norton’s murals grew out of his devotion to the preservation of art deco architecture. A member of the Chicago Programs Committee, an advisory group to the nonprofit Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, Sideman became concerned with the Daily News mural more than six years ago, when the first panel was removed. He says the Landmarks Preservation Council decided to get involved “in response to the public clamor” to get the mural reinstalled. But Sideman and other preservationists have waged what he calls a “futile effort” to determine the intentions of the mural’s owners.
“There has been undiminished public interest in seeing the mural reinstalled for public view,” says Sideman. “Every other property owner of a Norton mural [in downtown Chicago] has seen fit not only to restore it, but to feature it prominently in their building, often at considerable additional expense. They have all found their Norton murals highly valuable. In fact, these murals have helped to define their buildings, to tenants and visitors alike. The Chicago Board of Trade, Wacker Tower–none of these owners had to be coaxed. They saw it in their own self-interest, with no public pressure, to preserve their Norton murals.
“It’s difficult, then, for us to understand why the most important of all of Norton’s murals is lying in storage. We don’t understand why Riverside Plaza management doesn’t recognize the value of what they have.”
It took preservationists almost two years–until the summer of 1995, by which time First Office Management had become Equity Office Properties–to get a meeting with the building’s representatives. “We first proposed that they reinstall it,” Sideman says, “but they welcomed our suggestions to explore the possibility of installing it elsewhere.” The Landmarks Preservation Council then talked to a “prominent Chicago corporation” that expressed interest in displaying the mural. “We came back and said, ‘Here’s somebody who’s interested,'” Sideman recalls. “Then they said, ‘Maybe we’ll put it back into place after all, it really belongs here,’ leaving us confused as to why they had encouraged us to look for another site. But when we pressed them further on the reinstallation, we got only vague suggestions of some time in the indefinite future.”
Last September, Sideman and others–including Mary Lackritz Gray, who’s writing a historical guide to Chicago murals–met with Equity Office Properties’ David Crawford at the warehouse where the mural is being stored. The 19 panels were unrolled and laid out on the floor. “The mural appeared to be in good condition–it hadn’t been harmed in storage,” says Sideman. “It was stored in a safe place, by competent people. But it was very dirty.” He says it seemed like a lot of paint had flaked away.
Crawford urged Sideman to sign a confidentiality agreement, which would have precluded him from speaking to the press about the mural. Though Sideman says he never received the form in the mail, he was still reluctant to talk for fear that it might jeopardize further discussions about the mural’s future. Each side characterizes the matter as delicate.
“I’ve received inquiries from people all over the country about the mural,” Sideman says. “They’ve taken architectural tours, and when they find that the mural isn’t there, they’ve asked me, ‘How could it possibly be that Norton’s most important mural is not in public view?’ It’s just a rotten shame. They have all that space and a captive audience. Interest remains strong. It’s an important piece to the thousands of people who used to see it every day. Everybody wants to see it. But they do nothing.”
Equity Office Properties’ David Crawford says his firm is open to discussion. “We’ve been trying our best to cooperate with a variety of interested parties, and we continue to cooperate, both with people from LPCI and others who’ve inquired. It’s not an adversarial relationship.”
In the past, preservationists have complained that it’s difficult to reach the right person at Equity Office Properties regarding the status of the Daily News mural. Zell will presumably make the final decision, but he’s a busy man. “He’s flying all over the country,” Crawford says. Instead, different people have talked to different representatives–a sort of corporate musical chairs. I’ve talked to four spokespeople over the last five years, one of whom recently declined to be identified, stating, “The art community has become extremely sensitive about this matter. Things have been blown up and misrepresented in the past, and we received tremendously negative press with respect to the mural.”
Crawford, who’s been with the company since 1991, appears to be the mural’s point man at the moment. “It’s a wonderful piece of art, and I’m proud to be involved with it,” he says, explaining that he’s been on the case for about a year.
“Our objective is to really do the right thing with this beautiful piece of art,” Crawford says. “But it’s a difficult and complex issue, given its size and the complexity of the artwork. There’s a considerable diversity of opinion of what restoration means, a wide range of views as to what a restoration is for a mural of this size. The variety of expert opinions have not necessarily been in consensus as to what the right, best course of action is. We do not have complete consensus on the next restoration step.”
Why couldn’t Conrad Schmitt Studios restore the mural?
“We wanted to have it down here and bring in additional expertise, and have other experts evaluate it,” Crawford says.
Then why haul it up to Milwaukee in the first place?
“We felt it was very important to have a number of opinions of what could be done, what should be done, within the realm of possibility. We want to do the right thing by it.”
Crawford points out that Equity Office Properties hired Anne Rosenthal, a “well-respected” California conservator, to clean a small portion of one of the panels after the mural was returned to Chicago; they wanted to get an idea of what the mural would look like. Reached at her San Rafael workshop, Rosenthal says that her report was prepared for “confidential in-house information” and that she’s “not at liberty to comment” on the level of damage incurred during the mural’s removal.
Was there any damage?
“There’s always going to be some damage–every expert you speak with will tell you that,” says Crawford. “In an ideal world, you want to restore it in place. We would’ve loved to have been in the position to do that. Unfortunately, the condition of the roof and the ceiling required us to take extraordinary action.” While structural repairs have been made, Crawford says, more work will be necessary in the future. “This is a vintage building, and it’s a chore to keep it up. There are a lot of demands to keep it functioning into the 21st century.”
Is money the issue?
“Money is clearly an issue. A restoration of this magnitude is not going to be inexpensive.
“We respect the efforts of people who care about the mural, and their patience. We all have good intentions. I think we’ll get there. It’s just a matter of time.”
Rick Strilky replies. “They invite us to call their bluff real easily, so why shouldn’t we? I reiterate the offer for disinterested expert conservators to help with the mural project. It’s still on the table, and it’s been on the table since 1990. Let’s make a date to have three or four conservators look at this mural. Let’s make a date within the next 60 days and meet. I sincerely hope that Zell’s group proves me wrong and invites a serious academic group of conservators to help with this project.”
Tim Samuelson of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks shares a story that was passed along to him by someone who heard it from Margrette Oatway Dornbusch, who assisted Norton on the mural along with Lea, June Knabel Mose, and Norton’s wife, Madge.
“At the same time he was working on the Daily News mural Norton was having trouble getting paid by a previous client. In the mural, he wrote an obscene or derogatory message about the person who stiffed him. He wrote it backwards. The idea was that it was way up in the air–he didn’t intend for people to see it. In any other building, no one would’ve noticed it. But in that building were printers who could read backwards, and what was Norton’s private joke became very public. Word got around really fast that it was up there.
“Well, I went to the building with my camera, looking for backwards type. All I knew was that it was up there somewhere. I did it by a process of elimination–where would you look for backwards type? I thought I found it with a telephoto lens, in the printing plate coming out of the press roller. But it looked like it had been doctored. Evidently the building owners had painted it out.”
If Norton could see what’s happened to his mural, he might disparage another name now. Samuelson admits the city hasn’t exerted any pressure on Equity Office Properties, though he believes that a concerned letter or two may have been written in the past. “I’m surprised by the whole thing,” he says. “Not having the mural there sure changes that space. It seems so strange, seeing it gone.
“You know, Sam Zell is an interesting, no-nonsense kind of guy. Norton was a real no-nonsense kind of guy too. You’d think it’d be a nice match to all parties concerned. But apparently not.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): concorse photo 1929 courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/ today by Randy Tunnell/ Norton working on the mural, 1929 photo courtesy Chicago Historical Society/ John Warner Northon’s “Printing the News, distributing the news, transporting the news” courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/ John Warner Norton photo courtesy John Norton Garrett/ Rick Strilky photo by Randy Tunnell.