MODESTO — Two Depression-era murals from Modestos historic downtown post office were tucked away in a storage shed, virtually forgotten, for more than four decades.
When the lost artwork finally was recovered two years ago, there was great joy and promises theyd be reunited with the other Ray Boynton murals on display in the buildings lobby.
But that hasnt happened.
Before the federal Government Services Agency wrapped up its sale of the post office to private investors last month, it shipped off those two murals to a warehouse in Virginia.
Modestos public never got a chance to see the recovered art. And theres fear those 1936 vintage murals wont be returned to their rightful place inside the lobby of the iconic El Viejo post office.
When learning the GSA had sent them away, historian Lorie Garcia said her gut feeling was they would never come back. Garcia served as the historical consultant for the postal buildings sale to the Finch Fund LLC, a private investment group that was the high bidder in the governments auction of the building.
It took more than two years for the property purchase to close escrow, and the fate of those two murals was just one of many sticking points in the drawn-out deal.
The murals had been unaccounted for since 1967, when the federal government took them down to remodel the post office. They reportedly ended up being sold as salvage by the contractor doing the work.
They were recovered in September 2011, shortly after a Modesto Bee story publicized that the post office was being sold and that the hunt was on for the missing murals.
The buildings buyers planned to reinstall the recovered pieces named Water and Wealth and Gathering Fruit in the lobby, which will remain open to the public even after the structure is converted into law offices.
We found a spot where they would fit right into two empty half-circle arches of the same dimensions, said Garcia, noting how they would be next to seven other Boynton murals there.
But the paintings first must be restored, and the GSA has no plans to pay for that. The two murals have sustained significant damage and require restoration before they can be displayed to the public. Unfortunately, GSA does not have the funding to restore the murals at this time, said GSA spokeswoman Traci R. Madison.
Madison said an art restoration company told the GSA the murals would cost $32,000 to restore.
The artwork looked to be in pretty good shape when it was recovered two years ago. The Bee helped arrange its return after a reader contacted the newspaper to report he knew where the long-sought murals were being stored.
The Bee photographed and inspected the 4-by-8 murals at the time, and they appeared to have relatively minor water damage and a couple of scrapes. Peter Janopaul, who initially was overseeing the purchase for the buildings buyers, initially described the murals as intact and in great shape.
But they may have been damaged since then. Historian Garcia, who was not allowed to inspect them, said the GSA took possession of the two murals and stored them improperly.
They had been taken to the (empty) post office and leaned against the wall there, Garcia said. There was no temperature control in that vacant building, she said, which could have caused the murals to warp.
By the time Wayne Mathis, the city of Modestos cultural services manager, inspected them in late spring of 2012, he said they were warped by about eight inches.
They were definitely restorable, Mathis said, but he didnt think they were in good enough condition to be publicly displayed.
The GSAs Madison said that by packing them up and shipping them to Virginia, the murals have been stabilized to ensure no further deterioration.
Rick Correia, who was instrumental in recovering the murals in 2011, is not happy with how things have turned out. Correia, whose brother-in-law had stored those murals for more than 40 years, said his family was assured they would be put back in a restored condition and on display because theyre a part of Modestos heritage.
Thats just really sad, said Correia. Theres no accountability.
Madison said the murals may be returned someday. There are several options for returning the murals to Modesto, assuming restoration services or funding can be provided by the recipient, Madison said. She said the post offices new owners or perhaps the city of Modestos McHenry Museum could pay for the needed repairs.
Bay Area resident Barbara Bernstein, who runs the New Deal Art Registry, an organization dedicated to preserving public art created during the 1930s and 1940s, said the GSA does not have a good reputation for protecting public art created during the Great Depression.
This is part of a big phenomenon, Bernstein said. Art that was created for our communities is being taken away.
The Modesto murals, commissioned by the U.S. Treasury, depict a panoramic view of agriculture and industry in Modesto as it was during the1930s.
They were done so people could see their own lives in artwork displayed in their communitys public places, Bernstein said. They are pictures of Modestos history.
Bernstein said it is culturally important to keep all those murals together in Modesto.
Theyre part of a set, Bernstein said. Its like two of the seven dwarfs being sent off alone, she said of them being sent to Virginia. Its a shame.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.