ELY – The 1940s-era murals in the Ely Post Office were given a once-in-a-lifetime cleaning, renovation and preservation this week. The two murals, one depicting a mining scene and the other …
ELY – The 1940s-era murals in the Ely Post Office were given a once-in-a-lifetime cleaning, renovation and preservation this week. The two murals, one depicting a mining scene and the other celebrating the wilderness, have been part of the landmark United States Treasury building here since shortly after it was built in 1938.
Four members of Chicago-based Parma Conservation – Director and Chief Conservator Elisabeth Kendall, along with conservators Peter Schoenmann, John Salhus and Ewa Devereaux – arrived in Ely last Sunday to begin the project.
“Our mission is to do no harm,” Schoenmann said. “We look to preserve everything that was original to each particular piece of art.”
The crew first cleaned the murals and started first thing Monday morning with the delicate work of matching the colors and restoring and touching up the art with tiny brushes while standing or sitting on scaffolding.
Between 1934 and 1943, the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Art was established to commission artwork in newly constructed federal post offices and courthouses. Mural contracts were awarded based on national and regional art competitions. Only the best artists were selected for these mural projects.
Renowned artist Elsa Laubach Jemne was commissioned to create “Wilderness” and “Iron Ore Miners” for the Ely post office lobby. She used an egg tempera paint on gesso grounds and painted the scenes, about four feet tall by 16 feet long, right on the wall.
“It looks much like watercolor, but this medium is very fragile and delicate,” Schoenmann said.
Jemne was commissioned to provide many murals for Post Offices in Minnesota and Wisconsin. There are 1,300 original murals total in the United States, and about 1,100 have survived.
To date, Parma Conservation has conserved more than two hundred post office murals nationwide. Ely Postmaster Mike Lund said the mural restoration project has been in the works since 2019, when Salhus visited Ely to complete an assessment and provide a proposal.
“We try to prioritize the restoration projects that are most needed to preserve this unique public art,” Schoenmann said. “We’re perfectionists. We want to fix any imperfections or damage to the art and restore it to its original condition.”