Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Steve Goodman Post Office

A Place of Joy Executive Assistant heads for Lakeview
Post Office with rush orders (JWB, 2012)

Jill and I walked to the Lakeview Post Office a couple of weeks ago to mail a half-dozen packages for our daughter's stationery and design company, Kimberly FitzSimons.  The firm's executive assistant joined us on a lovely early autumn stroll up Southport. 

Of all the places in Chicago to mail a package, the post office at 1343 West Irving Park, might be the best.  The first thing you might notice is the cornerstone at the corner of Southport and Irving Park.  At its top is the name of Henry Mergenthau, named by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 to head the Treasury Department.  Below his name is the name of James A. Farley, the Postmaster General.  The date on the cornerstone, barely readable after over seven decades of Chicago winters, appears to be 1933.

The real treasure comes on the inside, though, as you come face-to-face with Epic (Epoch) of a Great City, a mural created by artist Harry Sternberg in 1937 and restored in 2003 by Parma Conservation of Chicago.

The artist, Harry Sternberg, shown at work at some sort of electric
gizmo, at the bottom left of the mural (Photo Courtesy of the
Friends of the Lakeview Post Office Mural)
An excellent biography of Harry Sternberg is contained in Mary Lackritz Gray’s A Guide to Chicago’s Murals.  Sternberg was born in New York to a poor immigrant family in 1904.  Lackritz indicates that the artist worked his way through the Art Students’ League, joining its faculty after graduation. At the age of 29 he was appointed the youngest faculty member in the school’s history, and he worked there for another 33 years. During the 1930’s he worked as part of the Graphics Division of the Federal Art Project.  During this period he came to Chicago to complete the work at the Lakeview Post Office.

The creator's signature in the lower right of the mural (JWB, 2012)
 As bad as we might think the economy was during the past decade, by 1933 one-fifth of those eligible to work in the country could not find a job.  The government responded in a number of ways, and the Public Works of Art Project, begun in December of 1933, was a program specifically designed so that artists would be put to work creating artworks for public buildings.

This program should not be confused with the Treasury Relief Art Project, a program for artists that was created as part of the Works Project Administration.  Under this program 90% of the artists employed in a project were required to be hired off the relief rolls.

In the Public Works of Art Project the Treasury Section recruited professional artists who were NOT on the relief rolls.  Funding was also assured for this program since funds for the art projects came out of roughly one-half of one percent of the production costs of the buildings to be decorated.  [Cook, Hillary.  “Politics of New Deal Art,” School of the Art Institute of Chicago.]

During this period The Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture gave out almost 1,400 commissions to decorate new federal buildings.  Of these commissions 1,100 post offices were built and decorated during this time.  From 1934 to 1941, “The Section” awarded 1,124 mural contracts for which it paid $1,472,199.  The amount of $563,429 was paid out for 289 sculptures during the same period.  These works featured the work of 1,205 individual artists with the average price for a mural commission coming in at $1,356.  Slightly more, $1,936, was paid on the average for a work of sculpture.

Epic (Epoch) of a City by Harry Sternberg (Photo Courtesy of Friends of the Lakeview Post Office Mural) 
Three views of Chicago can bee seen at the center of Sternberg's mural.  In the foreground Fort Dearborn is seen, rising on a bluff above Lake Michigan.  Behind it, beyond the water, Chicago the city is in flames.  Behind the burning city, though, the new city, the second city, has risen in the form of grand new structures.  The greatest buildings in the city are depicted, structures related to all facets of city life, commerce, religion, learning and art.  Clearly identifiable are the Civic Opera Building, the Palmer House, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, Tribune Tower, and Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. 

Three cities tell the history of Chicago in the middle of the mural (JWB, 2012)
However, the three cities, as impressive as their story might be, clearly take a secondary place to the primary motif of the mural.  In Sternberg’s mural the workers are in the foreground at the right and left of the piece, shown larger than life. Elizabeth Chodos in Chicago Post Office Murals’ Connection to Socialist Realism has observed, “The message that these murals convey is that without the hard work of the average man Chicago’s infrastructure, and by extension, the city’s vitality and national importance, would not exist.”  [School of the Art Institute of Chicago]

At the left of the mural those who toil as laborers are depicted.  A laborer in a mill, ladling molten iron into an ingot, is shown.  To his left there is Sternberg, himself, wearing a leather apron. We also see science here as a means to improved production and a way to ease the burden of the worker.  On the right side of the mural largely agrarian themes are developed.  There is a man in overalls walking down a ramp toward a stockyard, and, displayed most prominently, the “Knocker,” armed with a sledge, ready to stun a steer in the first step in the meat packing process.  Also displayed is  a factory worker involved in the production of farm tractors.  A great website devoted to the mural can be found here

"The Knocker" prepares to start the meat-packing process (JWB, 2012)
Restoration of any of the hundreds murals in post offices across the country is not a priority of an agency that is struggling under a mountain of debt.  Fortunately, Sternberg’s mural at the Lakeview Post Office found a friend in the form of Dr. David Baldwin, Jr.  In March of 2001, after conducting research on the mural and corresponding with Sternberg, who was 98-years-old at the time, Dr. Baldwin formed the Friends of the Lakeview Post Office.  This organization raised $16,000, and Parma Conservation was contracted to renew the mural.  The renovation was done during business hours so that members of the community could see the great treasure that many had never noticed before.

Just a little over two years ago the post office was renamed as the Steve Goodman Post Office Building.  Representative Mike Quigley sponsored the bill that led to the ceremony at the post office, located just blocks away from Wrigley Field, where Steve Goodman’s ashes were scattered after his death in 1984.


  1. Dear Jim,

    thank you for your great post on Lakeview and the mural. It is a wonder and we are lucky to have it in our neighborhood. Going to the PO is always a pleasure. glad you found the website. best, david baldwin

  2. I learned a lot of information about it.

  3. as long as I live I will remember the story of Steve playing his "Train they called the City of New Orleans" to Arlo Guthrie