WPA Mural at Skokie School

Gazette Article by: Juanita Nicholson
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1996

The Skokie School is the location of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural that was never displayed because the 1934 School Board deemed it “communistic in character… sinister and threatening.”

According to a school paper he wrote in 1982, Peter Wittleder—then a Washburne student—reported that the Board also found artist Raymond Breinen’s 40-by-10-foot mural unsuitable for junior high school students because of its “… industrial… subject matter” and because “the workers are dejected.” The work has three sections: Agriculture, Industry, and the Unity of the Races, which shows black, white, and Asian figures embracing. It is titled “Give us the Unity of Man and We shall build a New World.”

Although the School Board intended to destroy the mural, it was saved by Superintendent Carleton W. Washburne, who insisted, “No one knows what kinds of things people will want ten or fifteen years from now.” The Board therefore agreed to save the work, which was painted in a two-story library, by covering it with a wall and bookshelves. Because it had not been painted in public view and the covering wall was completed before students returned from summer vacation in 1934, most students never saw the mural.

It was damaged by remodeling done in the 1950s, when the two-story library was divided into two floors. Support beams for the new second story and pipes for a sink in the art studio pierced the mural, and cabinets and several coats of paint covered the work.

District 36 business manager Gene Kucharski rediscovered the mural in 1982 after he had studied old architectural drawings and talked to those who still remembered the paining after almost 50 years. Portions of the work were revealed after the cabinets and covering paint were removed. In his paper, Peter Wittleder reported that the mural showed the effects of “time, nails and paint.” Its condition and location—partially buried between two floors—made the cost of restoration prohibitive.

Breiten, who was born in Russia in 1910, was better appreciated in other places. His work was appreciated in other places. The artist’s work was placed in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, and he is listed in the 1995-96 edition of Who’s Who in American Art, and the Dictionary of Contemporary American Artists, 1977 edition. His mural, “On the Soil is Our Wealth,” painted in 1938, can be seen in the lobby of the Wilmette Post Office.

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One Response to “WPA Mural at Skokie School”

  1. January 28, 2017 at 6:22 PM #

    An interesting side light. I attended Skokie 1952-1954. I knew about the WPA mural but it was, at the time, not to be talked about…too progressive or some such comment. Perhaps we saw it because the renovations were underway and it was temporarily revealed? Nevertheless, I don’t recall seeing it in its entirety or having teachers talk about it. We were able to get a glimpse now and then.

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