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A View from the Attic

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A View From The Attic

 27 April 2009


by Ruth Lauman



Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal


The WPA Federal=2 Art project was the first major attempt at government patronage of the visual arts in the United States and the most extensive and influential of the visual arts projects conceived during the Depression of the 1930’s by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

William Edward Lewis Bunn’s “Festival at Hamburg” for the Hamburg Post Office was a Fine Arts Section commission for which Bunn was paid $670. He was born May 29, 1910 in Muscatine, Iowa and studied under Grant Wood. His painting for the Hamburg Post office was a tempura on canvas mural measured 11’ 10” x 4’. It was contracted for on May 2, 1940 and installed July 17, 1941. The mural portrayed the Hamburg Peony Festival, predecessor of the present-day popcorn festival.

The annual Peony Festival, with the cooperation of the Inter-State Nurseries, consisted of several days of banqueting, pageantry, street parades, street dancing and flower exhibits. Certainly Bunn portrayed a lively, festive event in his mural. It graced the area over the old post office lobby for 25 years or so, when expansion of the present post office brought down the canvas scene.

Dr. Harvey Bang, a serious amateur artist, took on the task of removing the already fading canvas from the plaster walls, with an eye to restoring it in his basement studio. It was not to be. Bang soon discovered that the alkaline content of the plaster had rotted the canvas beyond repair, and he only started restoration of one end before abandoning the project.

In about 1984, the Hamburg Library Board commissioned Jim Zuck, Hamburg artist, to start from scratch to reproduce the once-famous mural, which he did. The only things he had to go by were black and white photos Dr. Bang had taken of the original while still on the post office wall, and the shreds of canvas Bang could not restore. From that, Zuck reproduced with great accuracy and detail, the original painting, and that mural hangs on the south wall of the Hamburg Library.

The GSA pulled some of its WPA art out of the basement in February 1987 and reissued it in poster form. One of the sketch studies brought back from obscurity and reproduced in full color on government posters was the Hamburg scene.

The local Arts Council, through the Iowa Arts Council, arranged to have a replica of the original painted by fine arts conservator Tony Rajer. He and his class of art students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison did just that, and their work now hangs in the Hamburg post office lobby. It adds sparkle, class and folksy charm to the post office. Come and see it.