‘Lost’ 80-year-old mural is back on display at Aurora school

Art conservator Scott Sherwood (pointing) with the Jacobson mural at the fine arts festival at Freeman School on April 25.

A Depression-era mural at Freeman Elementary School on Aurora’s West Side, which presented a grand welcome at the main stairway 80 years ago, has been found after disappearing from view approximately half a century ago.

Today it has been repaired, restored and rehung in the new addition to the school.

“This is truly an illustration of the old adage ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ ” said Scott Sherwood, the Aurora conservator who worked on it.  “Hardly anyone remembered anything about it.”

The original building was constructed in 1928, with typical architectural features of the time, with high ceilings and large windows. When the mural was commissioned in 1937, as part of the federal program known as the Works Progress Administration, it was a perfect fit in the hallway.

But modernization was on the way.

A wing was added to the west side of the building in 1952, and it was probably shortly after that that drop ceilings were installed throughout the old section for better heating efficiency.

The new ceiling concealed the entire upper half of the mural, so then something had to be done about the legs and feet that then seemed to be dangling on the wall.  The something turned out to be a thick coat of white latex paint.

“I imagine when the children left for summer vacation that year,” Sherwood said, “there were high ceilings and a painting of Pilgrims. But when they came back in September, there was just white paint and acoustic tile.”

In 2012, the Aurora Public Art Commission, with the assistance of researcher Mary Ann Signorelli of Aurora, exhibited images of dozens of WPA murals, mosaics and other art scattered throughout Aurora schools. Signorelli found, however, that old inventories of federally-funded art showed several murals that were supposed to be in schools but could not be found today.

One of the missing paintings was “Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock” by Emmanuel Jacobson at Freeman School.

No one could remember what had happened, and there was just one picture to go by, a reproduction in a reference book at the Art Institute of Chicago.

A group of researchers and staff scoured the school several times with no luck, but then fourth-grade teacher Faith Griesing had an inspiration.

Something about the unusual shape of the mural reminded her of the shape of a wall near the main staircase. She scratched off a tiny bit of white paint. Then she found a ladder, climbed up and pushed on a couple of ceiling tiles.

There they were. The Pilgrims. Still stoically waving goodbye to the re-supply ship sailing out of the harbor.

They were a little the worse for wear.  Ducts and conduits had been punched through, and the bottom half was heavy with paint. But they were still there.

The indignities of the decades were nothing new to Sherwood, of Aurora, who has restored hundreds of paintings over a long career and in  Aurora most recently saved the 93-foot long “History of Writing and the Alphabet” prior to the demolition of the former West Aurora High School building at 14 Blackhawk St. in 2015.

He began work on cleaning and removing the mural, which is painted on canvas, in June of 2018, and over the subsequent year repaired and restored the work, mounted and framed it, and oversaw the installation on a wall at the newest addition, completed in 2017.

Sherwood and Signorelli were featured speakers at a May 13 program about the restoration.