Janie Sheppard: What happens to Post Office Art?

Ukiah Post Office Mural

Mendocino County

As everyone now knows, the Ukiah Post Office is home to an authentic New Deal mural.  Noted artist Ben Cunningham painted it specifically for the Ukiah Post Office after consulting with respected members of the community.  The mural reflects the agriculture and timber industry of the Ukiah Valley, as it was in the 1930’s and even now.

A recent trip to the East Coast where I searched out post office murals led me to reflect on the particular style of post office murals and the significance of preserving the murals “in situ” (in their natural place).

The Ukiah post office mural exemplifies New Deal art, funded by the federal government to embellish federal buildings and provide employment for artists during the Great Depression.  We are fortunate to have in our everyday lives authentic New Deal art by an artist who went on to paint pieces that hang in the Smithsonian, adorn Coit Tower in San Francisco, and continue to be sold in fine art galleries.

If we convince the US Postal Service to retain the 1936 historic Ukiah Post Office, the mural will remain in its natural home.

If the Postal Service ignores our request, the Postal Service would sell the Oak Street Post Office and the mural would end up far from home, and, in any case, out of our everyday sight.  Viewers, wherever and whenever, would have to be told of the economy of the Ukiah Valley in the Depression to understand the mural’s significance.

Northampton Massachusetts offers a sad example of what happens when no one pays attention.  The huge mural painted for the Post Office in Northampton now hangs in the nether regions of the local court house where employees who work there every day are unaware of it and a leak in the ceiling threatens to damage it.

Post Office Mural now in the Northampton Court House

Artist Alfred D. Crimi painted the Northampton mural in 1940.  Also a well-respected artist, he had 12 solo exhibitions and he participated in group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Academy of Arts and Letters, the Chicago Art Institute, and in Paris, Rome, Bologna, and Trieste.  And now his mural hides from the public.

A happier example is the mural in the Bethesda Maryland Post office.  Built in 1937, its mural remains “in situ” and depicts a farmers market that survives handily surrounded by busy downtown Bethesda.

Bethesda Maryland Post Office Interior

Bethesda mural painter Robert Franklin Gates received a commission from the U.S. Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts to create a series of watercolors of Charles Gardens, South Carolina, and from 1929-1940, murals for post offices in Bethesda, Maryland, Oakland, Maryland, and Lewisburg, West Virginia.  Between 1937 and 1942, Gates was a guest instructor at the University of Florida, taught art classes at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland and at the Washington County Museum of Art in Hagerstown, Maryland. He also taught at the Phillips Gallery Art School in Washington, D.C.   At least his Bethesda mural remains where the public can appreciate it while standing in a line, pondering the significance of the New Deal and the ongoing farmers market depicted in the mural.

The market is depicted on the right hand side of the mural, the center and left portions reflect the farms and women farmers whose produce and eggs are sold at the farmers market that was established  in 1932 and continues to this day.

Bethesda Market today

By convincing the US Postal Service to preserve the Ukiah Post Office, and with it the New Deal mural, we are preserving our patrimony.  The Postal Service must not be allowed to consign the mural, our patrimony to a museum, or worse.  Sign the petition (available on most days in front of the Post Office between 11 am and 2 pm), or at ukiahpostoffice.com.

For related pictures, go here.


jonathan middlebrook March 31, 2011 at 9:00 am

Nor rain nor sleet will deter the Faceless from moving the P.O. to Baluchistan-by-the-Booney.

Plan B: move the mural to the Library.

–Keep some of the faith, Janie!

    I would rather view the mural in situ. The library has absolutely no historical value whereas the Post Office does. Other towns have saved their murals and post offices (think Bethesda, MD) and we can too.

Richard Shoemaker April 1, 2011 at 9:50 am

As an aside, there are some similar large murals in the County annex buidling (the old B of A) building on School street.