Jonathan Shahn, son of famed muralist Ben Shahn, had never personally seen his fathers works inside the Bronx General Post Office, now up for sale.
That was until he heard about them being endangered.
“You could see somebody putting some other kind of thing in here,” said the younger Shahn, a New Jersey resident who attended the Feb. 6 daytime hearing by postal officials over the sale.
The Melrose post office is landmarked outside. The lobby and the worn paintings are not.
But the younger Shahn, a sculptor and professor at the Art Students League, has now joined a letter writing campaign with fellow artists and historians to save the murals from possible extinction.
The New York City Landmarks Conservancy, a Manhattan-based nonprofit is leading the charge, urging the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to extend the landmark status to the lobby. By doing so, the paintings can then be protected since they’re directly painted on the lobby walls.
“The quickest way is to get the city to landmark it,” said Peg Breen, president of the Landmarks Conservancy.
Letters have been sent to LPC commissioner Robert Tierney, asking the agency to protect Shahn’s murals for history’s sake.
“There is no American art history book in existence that does not feature his work as one of the most important artists of the period of 30’s and 40’s,” wrote artist Robert Haas, who’s followed the elder Shahn’s work for some time.
Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson were cleared to craft the enormous murals under the U.S. Treasury Department’s Public Works of Art Project during the 1930s. Shahn chronicled the spirit of labor, based on a Walt Whitman poem entitled “I see America Working.”
The painting’s value has compelled local Congressman Jose Serrano to write directly to Postmaster General Patrick Donahue.
“It’s not just a mural,” said Serrano. “It’s history.”
LPC spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon said the city agency is “actively considering the proposal to landmark the interior of the post office.”
A three-part process is involved, beginning with scheduling a hearing, holding it, and then making a decision.
If the commission does not extend the landmark status to the lobby, then an easement can be executed, shifting caretaking responsibilities to a historic preservation group.
David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at DCruz@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 742-3383