Preserving history for the ages

By mlekovic

The Blackstone Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave., unveiled four refurbished historic murals on Aug. 31. An exhibition showcased the murals after a two-month hiatus, during which they were restored to their former glory.

The massive murals are front and center for patrons to see as they enter the library. They date back to 1893 when Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. Local artist Oliver Dennett Grover was commissioned to paint them for $10,000. The murals, which represent literature, labor, art and science, are now worth more than $1 million. Each mural has a winged female figure in the center representing one of the themes.

“The Blackstone Branch Library was the first branch building of the Chicago Public Library, so even though there were other branches at the time, a lot of them were in storefronts, reading rooms and schools,” said Lesa Dowd, conservator for Special Collections at the Chicago Public Library.

The library was named for Timothy B. Blackstone, founding president of the Union Stock Yards and the president of Chicago and Alton railroad. The murals were donated to the Chicago Public Library in 1902 by his widow Isabel Farnsworth Norton Blackstone.

Dowd was the project manager for the preservation of the murals. She was in charge of overseeing the contractors who worked on the restoration project.

Over the years, the murals have slowly been ruined by age, dirt and a leak in the dome a few years ago, which caused a lot of damage to the gilded plasterwork that frames the murals.

“[The murals] were getting dark because they are 106 years old,” Dowd said. “[Library staff] used to use coal to heat [the library], so there is a layer of dirt that caused them to darken and you couldn’t truly appreciate them the way that Grover intended them to be appreciated.”

The Blackstone Mural Restoration was funded by a $100,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Conservators from across the U.S. were invited to bid on the project.

Parma Conservation of Chicago, a company that specializes in painting and mural preservation, was selected to test, clean and restore the Blackstone Murals and surrounding decorative plasterwork.

“When we did the initial testing, we thought the murals had only a layer of dirt and had never been meddled with since 1893, but after we did further testing, it just seemed they weren’t getting as clean as they needed to be,” said Peter Schonemann, a painting conservator for Parma Conservation.

During the unveiling, representatives from Parma Conservation gave a presentation for the public, explaining the restoration process.

In 1959, another company tried to restore  the murals, but made them dirtier and harder to clean because they used furniture varnish, according to Schonemann. The varnish added an extra layer of grime to the murals which disguised their natural look.

To remove the varnish,  Schonemann and other members of Parma created a gel-like substance by mixing over-the-counter drinking alcohol with an acid and a base to clean the stubborn varnish.

After the first layer was cleaned, Parma members thought they reached the surface, but after continuous work, noticed that more cleaning was needed because the varnish wouldn’t come off.

“The murals are beautiful, they’re an element of Chicago history and culture and a thing for people to enjoy,” said Howard Zar, member of the Friends of Blackstone Library, a group dedicated to improving the library.

The library will have to maintain the murals in order to preserve them for generations to come, so a piece of Chicago history isn’t destroyed.

“Making sure that building maintenance is up to date, as far as the roof is concerned, that would be the main priority,” Schonemann said. “The murals are our history. How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?”