Lying on scaffolding or standing on the tile floors in the art deco lobby of the aging post office, Anton W. Rajer completed his delicate task. His tools were cotton swabs and trisodium phosphate.
Rajer is one of a handful of professional art restorers working to save Depression-era murals around the nation for the U.S. Postal Service.
“During the Depression, 2,200 post office buildings had murals or sculptures, mostly murals, installed,” he said. “About 2,000 are left today and it’s my job to help save them.”
Rajer, 33, and his fellow restorers are racing against time to preserve the cracking, fading murals that were painted half a century ago.
5 Murals for Sheboygan
He recently completed restoration of the five murals painted from 1935 to 1938 by Schomer Lichtner for the main Sheboygan post office building.
“It was important just being able to do artwork at a time when nobody was able to sell anything,” said Lichtner at a ceremony marking the restoration.
The painter, now 81, said the murals looked as fresh as when he completed them and added, “This is what started many artists off on their careers.”
Several involved in the original mural project went on to become well-known artists. Among them were Milton Avery, who decorated the post office in Rockville, Ind.; Aaron Bohrod, Vandalia, Ill.; Doris Lee, Washington, and Paul Sample, Redondo Beach, Calif.
Famous Artists Used
Such artists as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Ben Shahn were commissioned for other Works Progress Administration projects.
The post office artists won their assignments through competitions.
Lichtner displayed a framed telegram from the U.S. Treasury’s Relief Art Project, dated Sept. 9, 1935, advising him he had been accepted for the mural project at $94 a month, materials supplied.
From that order came the five murals for the Sheboygan post office, all oils painted in Lichtner’s studio. There had been plans for a sixth, but the project ended in 1941 with America’s entry into World War II.
The restoration is a continuing project nationwide, administered by the various postal regions, said John Sorenson, historic coordinator in the Postal Service’s real estate department in Washington.
The cost of restoring each mural ranges from a couple hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on its condition, he said.
All remaining murals are being inspected. “If it looks OK, we don’t touch it,” he said.
“I don’t believe any murals have been lost since the service took over from the old Post Office Department in the early 1970s,” said Paul Steiner, who is directing the restoration effort for the Postal Service’s 13-state Central Division from Chicago.
‘Still Our Property’
“Now if we sell a building with murals we take them out and install them in the new building. Or if there’s no room for them, we put them on loan to a library or similar place, but they’re still our property.”
Steiner said the restoration project began in 1976 and that five restorers currently are under contract in the central region.