Mail Matters: Another Michigan Mural

On the eve of World War II, while Americans continued to suffer from the economic fallout of the Great Depression, the United States Treasury Department’s “Section of Fine Arts” commissioned Zoltan Sepeshy, the Head of the Painting Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, to paint a mural for a new post office in downtown Caro. At the same time, one of his star students, David Fredenthal, was commissioned to paint a mural for the new post office in Lincoln Park. (Having trouble placing Caro, if not also Lincoln Park, on a map of Michigan? For your first geography lesson, place your right hand, palm side up, next to you. Caro is located in the middle of your thumb, while Lincoln Park is closer to your wrist.)

Separate and distinct from the more extensive and influential WPA or Works Progress Administration’s “Federal Arts Project,” which essentially was a work-relief program for artists, the purpose of the Treasury Department’s “Section” program, as it came to be known, was “to secure for the Government the best art which this country is capable of producing, with merit as the only test.” Sepeshy and Fredenthal, with their recently minted Cranbrook credentials, fit the bill. Fredenthal even had some mural experience, having recently painted an octopus mural for the Academy’s now infamous Crandemonium Ball in 1936.

Octopus mural by David Fredenthal for Crandemonium Ball, March 1936. Cranbrook Archives.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Southers, Lincoln Park’s postal superintendent, was more than a little perplexed and worried about the mural David Fredenthal was to paint for his post office. The week of September 25, 1939, Southers received a letter from Washington notifying him that Fredenthal, who the government described as a “sensational young artist” from Cranbrook Academy of Art, had been named to paint the mural—a fresco no less. Southers, who more than likely had not paid a visit to the seven-year-old Academy in Bloomfield Hills, not only had no idea what a fresco painting was but was intimidated by the government’s suggestion that he was to confer with the artist about the subject matter. His big idea? He thought a mural showing all of Lincoln Park’s postal superintendents (no doubt with him in a position of prominence) would do just fine.

Fortunately for Southers, geography intervened. Pulling out his own map of Michigan, Sepeshy did some calculations (which I just repeated using Google Maps). Realizing that Caro was some seventy-two miles from his studio in Bloomfield Hills while Lincoln Park was just twenty-six, the Hungarian painter decided to pull rank. He had the commissions switched and assigned the Caro project to his student while he decided to paint the mural in Lincoln Park, a few miles south of Dearborn.

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A Michigan Mural

Metro Detroiters, out-of-town visitors, and architectural aficionados worldwide have long admired the Penobscot Building in Detroit’s Financial District. Like its close neighbor, the Guardian Building, and the Fisher Building further north in Midtown, it is one of the city’s finest examples of art deco architecture and one of the iconic structures that still make up Detroit’s skyline today. Designed by Wirt C. Rowland of Smith, Hinchman, & Grylls, when its 47 stories were built in 1928, it was the tallest building in the city and the fourth tallest in the nation.

The Penobscot, on the National Register of Historic Places, is perhaps best known architecturally for its tiered upper seventeen floors and the exterior ornament by sculptor Corrado Parducci, whose work can be seen on many other Detroit buildings. It’s also known to locals for the red-lit globe at the top (originally designed as an aviation beacon), the legendary Caucus Club (Barbara Streisand reportedly launched her singing career here), or the famed roof observation deck which offered an excellent panorama of the city.

But, what about the interior of the Penobscot? Well it just so happens there’s a Cranbrook connection!

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The original bank lobby. Courtesy Detroit Free Press Archives.

The Guardian Detroit Group was the first tenant of the two-story bank hall at 635 Griswold St. before they had their own skyscraper commissioned just a block away. A later occupant, Detroit City Bank, opened in the same space in February 1949. When they did, adorning one wall was a mural painted by Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate and Head of Kingswood School Art Department (1940-1956), Clifford B. West. Known as the “Mural of Michigan” the twenty-six-foot painting depicts scenes representing state commerce and industry. West, who studied under Zoltan Sepeshy, and with fellow muralist David Fredenthal, had already completed a bank mural in Alamosa, Colorado, as well as Detroit-area murals in the Rackham Building, Stockholm Restaurant, and Fox & Hounds Restaurant.

Following a meticulous process that involved a series of sketches at different scales, cartoons plotted to a numbered grid and traced on the wall, and painting in two steps (large blocks of color followed by detail work), the scenes were applied in casein tempera on canvas cemented to the wall. Joining in this process was West’s wife and fellow artist, Joy Griffin West, and several academy students. Fortuitously, each stage of work was captured in a series of photographs by Cranbrook photographer, Harvey Croze.

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Upon completion of the mural, West mounted an exhibit at Cranbrook Art Museum titled, Progress of a Mural in April 1949, detailing his process for the Penobscot mural, and featuring many of the preliminary sketches and cartoons.

It’s largely unknown whether the Penobscot mural exists today, since a drop ceiling was installed many years ago, completely obscuring West’s creation.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist

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