Mitchell School WPA Mural, Tragic Treasure

Doug Chaussee: There is no way to make this story short, so either hang in there with me or keep scrolling. 😁 I have always been interested in restoration of old oil paintings so once I heard about the WPA mural at Mitchell School here in town, I started looking into it and the artist. In 1941, Santos Zingale completed the three panel mural as a WPA sponsored project. It was 42′ by 12′ and shows Capt. Gilbert Knapp’s discovery of Racine. The mural hung in the school until sometime in the 1950’s when it was torn off the wall for some reason and dumped in the basement of the school. In 2014 there was a fire at the school and the mural was rediscovered and now suffered some water damage. Racine Unified School sent the mural to a restoration company in Chicago for repairs but when lead paint was found on the mastic backing, it was returned to Racine. The new estimate for restoration skyrocketed with the discovery of the lead. Nothing more was written about the status of the work or any developments.

In 2018 Unified sold the old Wind Point School to a developer. The school was to be demolished but it was full of unused school furniture and miscellaneous items. I was asked to help run the public sale of the contents to clear the way for the demolition in February of 2018. As we were setting up the sale, we found a large sonotube (used as a concrete form) which had something rolled around it and covered in plastic. The contractor wanted the tube, so the roll was marked NFS. When I looked under the plastic, I assumed it was some sort of stage backdrop in poor condition. A month or so later I met some people at the school to collect some of the last items and noticed that the tube was now gone, and the canvas was tossed on a pile of debris waiting to get hauled to the dumpster. Curiosity got the best of me, and I dragged it out and spread the parts out on the old gym floor. It was the Zingale mural! I rolled up the sections in plastic sheeting and with the help of some abatement workers loaded it into my truck and took it to my shop for safekeeping. I couldn’t believe that this priceless work of art had been so neglected and was almost sent to the dump. I eventually called Unified and inquired about the painting and was told that they had it in storage and were awaiting restoration. They had no clue it was missing. Calls to Mitchell school revealed that nobody there knew anything about the mural at all, much less that it was missing. Over the next few years, it sat at the shop and I was unable to generate any interest in getting it to some venue where it would be fixed and placed in a public setting. I felt strongly that it had to stay in Racine. Research later showed that the Federal Government, GSA claimed ownership of all WPA art that was not in the hands of an accredited venue such as a school or museum. If a home for it in Racine could not be found it had to go back to the GSA. I had visions of the end of the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie where the ark goes into this endless warehouse, never to be seen again.

Fast forward to present. I noticed that an update on a WPA art page which mentions the mural indicated that as of the end of 2021, Unified had no idea where the mural was and suspected that it had been lost. I was encouraged that perhaps someone at unified was now at least interested in the mural and willing to take it back and get it in the public eye down the road. I did make contact with Unified and spoke to the Chief Operations Officer who was very happy that the mural had been saved from oblivion and said he would do everything possible to get the mural restored and placed in one of their buildings. Unified is spending several hundred million dollars on new schools and renovations to existing buildings soon and this might be the perfect time to right this wrong. It appears that most of the people responsible for the neglect of the mural have moved on and I felt very encouraged that there is now sufficient interest in its preservation. Today, Unified sent a truck and workers to meet me at the shop and the mural is now back in their hands. It is my sincere hope that by making the crazy history of the mural known, there will be more public awareness and discussion which will lead to support for the restoration and installation of this priceless painting. I was promised that I would be kept in the loop on this matter but knowing local governmental organizations, I will stay on them and not let it go dormant again.

If you hung in there to the end of this saga, thank you. Please feel free to help keep this alive and keep pressure on Unified to get it done.