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Depression-Era Post Office Murals Imperiled

13 mural by Ben Shahn and his wife, Bernada Bryson, may meet their end

Natalie Schachar
April 09, 2013
(Natalie Schachar)
(Natalie Schachar)

While the US Postal Service usually has as much to do with art as far as the next stamp design is concerned, a pending plan to sell the Bronx Post Office has artists and preservationists worried about the uncertain future of thirteen murals painted by Ben Shahn and his wife, Bernada Bryson.

The frescos, which are painted directly onto the walls of the building’s interior a la Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, depict the occupations of American workers and have come to exemplify life during the Great Depression. But the Postal Service, which continues to reel from financial woes, has proposed selling the colossal building and relocating.

“In the face of unsustainable deficits, the Postal Service must seek ways to cut costs and reduce the size of its infrastructure,” read duplicates of an announcement posted alongside certain murals. “We believe we have an opportunity in the Bronx to sell the existing Postal Service at 558 Grand Concourse Avenue and right size our retail operation into smaller leased space.”

Although the historic post office building, which was completed in 1939, is protected as a New York City landmark, the murals within the building have no landmark designation and the new tenant would become the proprietor of the works with the building’s sale. According to the New York Landmarks Conservancy, such a move would endanger the floor-to-ceiling murals if proper protections are not in place.

The property has yet to be sold, but critics like Jonathan Shahn, the late artist’s son, have stepped in to urge the New York Landmarks Commission to officially preserve the murals for their artistic value and their wider significance as New Deal government-sponsored art projects. The post office scenes of Southern and Midwestern American life by Shahn, a Jewish artist from Williamsburg who studied alongside Diego Rivera, were commissioned by the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and became a prominent example of federal support for the arts during the era.

Congressman José Serrano has penned a letter to the Postmaster General about the proposed sale.

Natalie Schachar is an editorial intern at Tablet. A recent graduate of Barnard College, she has written for the Times of Israel, The Atlantic, The Argentina Independent and Lilith Magazine.

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