In 2014, the staff at the Richmond Museum of History learned from longtime member Fran Cappelletti that a mural had once graced the post office lobby. “Richmond Industrial City,” created by Victor Arnautoff commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts, had been installed at the downtown post office in April 1941. A protégé of Diego Rivera, Arnautoff, a prominent figure in New Deal art, is perhaps best known for his role as the artistic director of the extensive murals at Coit Tower in nearby San Francisco.
Records show that when the post office lobby was remodeled in 1976, the 13’4″ x 6’6″ mural depicting prominent people and places in Richmond was carefully removed by art conservator Nathan Zakheim, the son of another renowned New Deal artist, Bernard Zakeim. It was believed to be stored in the building’s basement. A janitor for the post office investigated and found a huge triangular crate in an unlit room, the label clearly identifying it as the missing mural. It has been forgotten for nearly four decades.
As museum staff worked for months to gain permission from the local USPS authorities to take possession of the crate and have it opened by a conservator, the post office was closed due to flooding in the basement. That led to the crate being moved six blocks to the history museum where it was opened it. The crate showed a distinct water line. There was a collective sigh of relief when, upon opening the crate, it was revealed that Zakheim, the conservator, had built the tube to hold the canvas on 6″ high stilts. The oil-on-canvas was dry and in overall good condition.
Since rediscovering the mural, the museum has raised $5,000 of the roughly $50,000 needed to restore and return it to public view. A recent setback—a restoration expert found lead paint stuck to the back of the canvas from the wall where the mural originally hung. Special handling is required to remove the toxic lead.
Richmond: Industrial City is art made by the people, for the people, of the people and is now being restored with the help of the people.