The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to restore a long-neglected mural by seminal Los Angeles artist Helen Lundeberg in the old City Hall on Commonwealth Avenue. Duane R. Chartier of ConservArt Associates in Los Angeles was awarded the $30,230 contract.
Painted in 1942 on three walls of the former council chambers, the 900-square-foot mural was part of the Work Projects Administration's Federal Art Project. It depicts "the agricultural and industrial development of Southern California," according to painted lettering visible in an old photograph.
Lundeberg's work was partially hidden by a false ceiling installed in 1963, when the new City Hall opened next door and the building became police headquarters. A portion of the mural beneath the ceiling was painted over, and part of the image was obliterated by electrical renovations.
The restoration work, expected to take about six weeks, involves removing the wall paint, cleaning the undamaged portions of the mural and applying a protective coating. The city will then seek bids to retouch and repaint the damaged portions of the mural, work that is expected to cost about $10,000. Officials plan to use the room for police briefings and community meetings when the work is completed.
The mural "is a local treasure and probably has more than a local significance in the art community," said city Redevelopment Director Terry Galvin.
Lundeberg, 83, who moved to Pasadena from her native Chicago as a child, was a pioneer of modern painting on the West Coast along with her husband, Lorser Feitelson. The couple introduced their "Post-Surrealist" style--a rational, rather than dreamlike, arrangement of objects with metaphoric meanings--in the mid-1930s.
Lundeberg designed murals for the WPA from 1938 to 1942. In the early 1950s, she began to simplify her style into large, flat geometric shapes that retained a link with landscape and architectural forms. Her work has been shown in such institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Chartier--whose background includes sculpture and mural preservation consulting work in Rome, Salzburg and Venice, Calif.--said that restoring the painted-over portion of the mural will be especially tricky because both the wall and the mural were painted with oil-based paint.
It will take from 300 to 400 hours to remove the wall paint by applying glue-soaked fabric to the mural in small sections. (When the glue dries, the fabric shrinks and pulls the paint loose.)
"It's not a job that can be rushed," Chartier said after the meeting. "It has to be done incredibly carefully." But, he said, he has tested the process on small portions of the mural and has concluded that about 90% of the original paint work can be saved. Still, he didn't rule out complications: "Conservation almost always greets surprises," he said.
Redevelopment director Galvin said Chartier's thorough testing and conclusions "sold us" on his approach. Chartier showed that removing the first coat of paint by less drastic means would involve liquefying the paint--which would lodge in the pores of the plaster and damage the color and clarity of the mural, Galvin said.
Lundeberg, who is in failing health, has no comment on the project, according to her Los Angeles dealer, Tobey C. Moss. "Helen has detached herself from it," Moss said. "She does not have a cloyingly sentimental attitude toward her work."
But Moss said she herself is concerned that the process Chartier will use involves removing part of the mural surface. "That means it's no longer Helen's," Moss said. She acknowledged, however, that while the original scheme was Lundeberg's, the completed mural involved the work of a team of painters. "Her hand wasn't on every square inch of it," Moss said. "I don't want to make it (sound) pretentious."
Moss had hoped that the City Council would choose another bidder, Nathan Zacheim, a fine-art conservator also based in Los Angeles, who has done extensive work on another Lundeberg mural in Inglewood and who is restoring Megan Hart Jones' murals at Laguna Beach High School. But, Moss says, "since Fullerton is paying bills, I can't throw stones at them."
The mural project is part of a nearly $1-million restoration of the entire building, funded by a bond issue. About $22,000 was raised for the mural through a fund drive during the city's centennial in 1987. Galvin says he plans to invite donors to a celebration at the end of the year, when the mural work should be completed.