Airports restore major murals to former glory
By Harriet Baskas, special for USA TODAY
When Lambert-St. Louis International Airport celebrated the re-opening of its tornado-damaged Concourse C earlier this month, passengers were greeted with fresh shops and restaurants and a half-dozen new works of art.
But many community members had gathered weeks earlier to honor a 22-year-old piece of airport-owned art.
On February 16, the St. Louis airport re-dedicated “Black Americans in Flight,” a multi-panel mural measuring 8 feet tall and 51 feet long that pays tribute to African-American achievements in aviation. Painted in 1990 by local McDonnell Douglas employees Spencer Taylor and Solomon Thurman, the mural includes 75 portraits, 18 aircraft, three American Bald Eagles, five unit patches and one spacecraft.
“Our airport is going back to its original vision and trying to be a cultural institution as well as a utilitarian one,” said Lambert spokesperson Jeff Lea, “We think it’s important that when people come to our airport they see a piece of history and major artwork they are not going to see in any other airport.”
Other airports around the country have rescued and restored historically significant murals as well.
Shortly after the new Terminal B opened at Mineta San Jose International Airport in 2010, workers began demolishing the old Terminal C, which contained a 20-by-30 foot mural by noted California artist Millard Sheets.
Commissioned by the San Jose Mercury News in 1977, the site-specific mural marked San Jose’s 200th birthday and depicts San Jose history, from the earliest Native Americans through the Spanish settlers, the orchards and early industry.
“Preserving and moving the mural was no easy task,” said Mary Rubin, senior project manager for the public art program in San Jose. The artwork was adhered directly to the sheetrock with a very strong adhesive that conservators at first decided was impossible to remove. Removing the mural with the wall was considered, but Rubin said, “Luckily it turned out the mural could be peeled from the wall with minimal damage.”
In February, 2011, after several months of restoration, the mural was reinstalled at the airport’s international gates.
Two iconic, six-ton murals by Brazilian artist Carybé that were displayed for years in the American Airlines terminal at JFK Airport in New York are now at Miami International Airport.
“Rejoicing and Festival of the Americas” and “The Discovery and Settlement of the West” were created as site-specific work in 1960, but the massive murals, each almost 7-feet high and 53-feet long, were destined for demolition along with the terminal. A rescue campaign resulted in the murals (and the walls behind them) being cut into panels for removal and restoration, trucked to Miami and, in 2009, installed to great fanfare in the South Terminal H at Miami airport.
“We’ve brought a bit of art and aviation history to the airport,” said Yolanda Sánchez, MIA’s fine arts & cultural affairs director. “They’re important culturally as well because we consider Miami to be the capital of the Americas and these murals tell passengers they’ve arrived in a city that welcomes all of these different cultures. It’s a perfect match.”
Another perfect match was made in Cincinnati in 1974.
When a portion of the city’s Union Railway Terminal was to be demolished, fourteen 20-foot-by-20-foot Art Deco mosaic tile and painted stucco murals made by Winhold Reiss in the early 1930s were moved to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport.
The murals portray a wide range of local industrial history and have become a local tourist attraction. “We give around 150 tours a year for approximately 2,500 people,” said airport spokesperson Molly Flanagan, “and the murals are major part of that.”
In addition to the murals at CVG, the Art Deco-style terminal at Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport is home to two large oil-on-canvas paintings, created by William H. Gothard in 1937. “While today it is a general aviation airport, Lunken was at one time the largest commercial airport in the United States,” said Betsey Sanpere, creator of the Facebook page Arts in the Airports.
Tampa International Airport has also rescued and restored the WPA-era murals now showcased on the airside of Terminal E.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is home to a 40-foot by 60-foot, three-story mural by Guy Harvey. Created in 2005, the mural includes a view of the city?s downtown skyline and an underwater scene featuring a sunken freighter and an assortment of marine life.
Among various murals installed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport when the facility opened in 1999 is ?To Parts Unknown,? by Sandra Fiedorek. Eleven wood panels use enamel, tarmac paint and glass beads to illustrate aviation symbols and runway lighting patterns.
Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport has a mural titled ?The History of Aviation? created by noted children?s author and illustrator Peter S?s.
And in the McNamara Terminal at Detroit?s Metropolitan Airport, murals along the walls of the domestic and international arrivals bag area show famous Detroiters.
In the late 1930s, local artist George Snow Hill created seven murals depicting the history of flight for what was then Tampa’s newly built Peter O. Knight Airport. When a new terminal was built, in 1971, the murals went along, but most ended up rolled up and stowed away.
A triptych showing the first scheduled airline flight in history and the panel about the Wright Brothers were displayed at the airport’s executive suite, but the murals showing contributions made by Icarus and Daedalus, Archimedes, The Montgolfier Brothers, Otto Lilienthal and Tony Jannus were getting ruined in storage.
A major mural restoration project was linked to the construction of Tampa Airport’s Terminal E and, according to airport spokesperson Brenda Geoghagan, the post-security concourse area was designed to accommodate all seven murals.
These aren’t the only airport mural with illustrious histories. The Marine Terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport is home to “Flight,” a Works Project Administration mural painted in 1939-42 by James Brooks that tells the story of human flight beginning with Greek mythology on through to the mid-20th century. 12 feet high and 235 feet long, is it supposedly the largest WPA mural ever attempted. The mural was painted over in 1952, but uncovered, restored and named a city landmark in 1980.
And Sanpere, of Arts in Airports, is monitoring the six, 10-foot by 10-foot, colorful, transit-themed murals by Xavier Gonzalez currently behind protective walls at the art-deco terminal at Lakefront Airport on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. “The terminal is being accurately restored to its prior pre-Hurricane Katrina status and the entire city is waiting to see these paintings, which have been covered for decades,” said Sanpere.
While some murals need to be saved so the public can view them, at least one airport mural was created to save a view.
As part of a $35 million runway safety area improvement project completed in 2005, Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport had to relocate a creek and a roadway and construct a large embankment and a 30-foot-by-800-foot retaining wall.
Rather than leave the wall blank and mar the view, the airport commissioned Eric Henn to paint a trompe l’oeil mural depicting a stone bridge, a federal-style house and images from Kentucky horse farms.
The mural is so realistic-looking that “as an extra safety precaution we do publish information about the mural in publications typically accessed by visiting pilots,” said airport spokesperson Amy Caudill.
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