School curriculum is often accused of painting over history, but never like this.
A ceiling mural of the night sky’s constellations inspired the students of DeWitt Clinton High School for more than 75 years, until it was painted over during recent roof repairs.
Reminiscent of the ceiling art in Grand Central Station, ‘Constellations’ by German-born artist Alfred Floegel was one of many artworks commisioned by the New Deal public works instituted President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s; while also being one of many elaborate murals on the 89-year-old school’s walls.
“The reason why art and murals like this were put in public schools during the New Deal was to show the greater purpose of learning, FDR wanted students to see first hand that education was about more than hearing a teacher drone on about something,” said Gray Brechin, a historian at University of California, Berkley and founder of the New Living Deal, a scholarly project that catalogs the products of FDR’s Public Works Administration.
“This mural in particular not only highlighted art but promoted the value of wholesome education including science and astronomy as well. To recklessly paint over this piece of history is vandalism to say the least,” Brechin added.
He also explained that murals like this were quite common at many schools and public places throughout the country during the New Deal era.
Brechin’s colleague Frank da Cruz photographed Constellations and the other murals at DeWitt Clinton back in 2015.
Da Cruz described ‘a good 95 percent’ of that mural was in solid condition despite some plaster patches.
He became interested in New Deal art after relocating to the Bronx in 2012.
“I moved into a beautiful apartment across from the Williamsbridge Oval. I looked out my window and saw the park and began to wonder about its origin,” said da Cruz. “When I learned that it was a product of the New Deal I took great interest in seeing what else in New York was a product of the PWA,” da Cruz added.
Da Cruz’ became fascinated with the New Deal creations that he dedicated an entire summer to converting NYC Parks Department press releases from the 1930s to a digital, readable format in addition to photographing just about every PWA product in the entire city over those years.
The problem of masking New Deal works goes beyond this mural according to da Cruz.
He explained that when master public works developer Robert Moses began his conquest of the greater New York City area following the New Deal, he would not allow a cornerstone or plaque on PWA products so, as da Cruz says, “Moses could take credit for them himself.”
“Nobody knows what came from the New Deal and in situations like the mural at DeWitt Clinton there was nothing to indicate that it was a historical artifact,” da Cruz said.
Both Brechin and da Cruz noted that the New Deal and PWA highlighted a era when “the government worked for us,” so there is some painful irony that a government agency is responsible for the mural’s demise.
DeWitt Clinton High School refused to comment on the matter while the NYC Department of Education said that it is “exploring ways to restore this historic artwork.”
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