Shahn Murals in Bronx Post Office to be Saved
"America at Work" Murals - Bronx Post Office
Bronx Post Office, 560 Grand Concourse
Ben Shahn Murals
October 2013 UPDATE
Bronx Post Office Murals One Step Closer to Landmark Designation
October 29 – The Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing where they formally considered the designation of the Bronx General Post Office’s lobby as an interior landmark. This hearing was the second crucial step in the designation process. The commissioners heard testimony from the public including the Conservancy, which continued its advocacy for the distinguished series of Ben Shahn WPA-era murals that grace the space. The hearings are now closed and the Commission will bring the matter back for a final vote once historic research is completed by staff.
The Conservancy has been working with Congressman Jose Serrano and a coalition of artists and art historians to ensure that the murals are protected. The US Post Office announced last winter that it planned to sell the historic post office building on the Grand Concourse. While the 1937 building is a designated landmark, the interior and the 13 murals by Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson faced an uncertain future. The Conservancy joined with elected officials and local preservationists to speak out at the hearing and urge the LPC to take a vote and designate the murals.
The Conservancy is in discussions with the USPS and will soon accept a preservation covenant on the Bronx General Post Office that will include the lobby and the 13 murals. The covenant will give the Conservancy the right to access the designated space to make inspections and will bind the current and future owners to comply with federal preservation standards.
After a three way push by the Conservancy, Congressman Jose Serrano and artist Jonathan Shahn, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) calendared the lobby and important Ben Shahn murals at the Bronx General Post Office at 560 Grand Concourse on August 13. This is the first step toward the eventual full landmarking of the art and space.
At the Conservancy’s suggestion, Jonathan Shahn, working with Professor of Art History Laura Katzman of James Madison University, generated hundreds of letters and emails from artists and art historians across the country. They all urged the Commission to save the WPA murals created by his father and his mother, Bernarda Bryson Shahn. The 13 giant frescoes, entitled “America’s Resources,” show muscular men and women performing a variety of work.
Noted New York artist Richard Haas wrote, for instance: “There is no American art history book in existence that does not feature his (Shahn’s) work as one of the most important artists of the period of 30s and 40s…and this project is one of the most important ones done in that period.”
The Conservancy also urged designation and asked members to contact the Commission.
LPC Chair Robert Tierney said he was impressed with the knowledgeable and literate missives, as well as with the obvious merit of the murals.
The quest to save the murals intensified as the U.S. Postal Service announced plans to sell the Bronx Post Office, the largest of the City’s Depression-era post offices. It was designed by Thomas Harlan Ellen and praised as a “significant example of an evolving American style, a new classicism free of the dependence of the works of antiquity.” It was designated an exterior landmark in 1976.
Congressman Serrano and the community are fighting to keep the Post Office open. If it is sold, the Postal Service will maintain ownership of the murals. Designation will allow the LPC to ensure that the murals are protected regardless of the outcome.
The Conservancy will continue to press the LPC to schedule a designation hearing. And we intend to help the LPC by checking on the murals to ensure that they are properly maintained.
Shahn’s work is in the Whitney, MoMA, Museum of the City of New York, Jewish Museum, Brooklyn Museum, International Center of Photography and New York Public Library.
More About the Murals and the Artist
The 13 murals, painted in 1937 by noted American artist Ben Shahn are entitled “America at Work” and were inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I See America Working”. They depict the dignity of labor and American industry. They were part of the original building construction and are described in the Landmarks Commission’s designation report even though they are afforded no protection by the building’s exterior designation.
Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was a prolific American artist known for his works of social realism. He worked briefly with Diego Rivera on the infamous Rockefeller Center murals in 1933. His murals adorn several government buildings in Washington DC including his most famous in the Federal Security Building. His artworks are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, The Whitney Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York.