In 1994, The Center received a phone call that would put into motion one of the largest mural restoration projects Chicago has ever seen. At the request of a teacher from Lane Tech High School, The Center's founder was called in to examine a mural that was falling off of the wall at the school. That mural turned out to be one of 66 murals that are part of Lane Tech’s collection of Progressive (1904-1933) and New Deal era (1933-1943) murals. Those 66 murals were only the beginning of the trove of murals in the Chicago Public Schools that had been all but forgotten.
Eight years later in 2002, CEO of The Center Heather Becker published a book, Art for the People, detailing the story that unfolded when the Mural Department of The Center continued conservation of not only the Lane Tech murals, but hundreds of additional murals that came to light as part of this massive research and restoration project. This project required a major grassroots collaboration from many in the community, including teachers, the Art Institute of Chicago, city officials, historians, and preservationists. While some of the murals had been lost to the ages, a phenomenal number of them had survived. Many stories about the murals were revealed throughout this project. Becker personally recalls coming across two murals in an elementary school storage closet; they had been tucked away by a school engineer who hoped one day they could be fixed, despite having been painted over and then torn from the walls. In the end, all of the detective work from the parties involved in the project resulted in the location of 437 murals throughout 68 schools in Chicago.
Beyond the tremendous scope of the mural preservation project as a whole are the stories told by each and every individual mural. Just a few weeks ago, an unexpected email was received at The Center opening up a new window into the history of the Progressive era murals. “A young cousin of mine who lives in Chicago bought Art for the People as a gift for her husband, and looking through it found a mural by my mother, Margaret A. Hittle. A nice surprise!” That email came from Margaret's daughter Barbara, who knew that her mother was an artist and muralist (Hittle went on to work in the education department at University of Michigan, teaching art at the University High School) but her mother's mural Steel Mill (1909) at Lane Tech High School was a new find for her and her family.
At the age of 23, Margaret A. Hittle (1886-1976) was a student at the School at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1909 when she entered a competition sponsored by the Chicago Public Schools Art Society. At the time, the Art Society was led by President Kate Buckingham, a huge supporter of the arts and advocate for placing public art in schools. (Chicagoans may recognize her name from the fountain in Grant Park she donated to the city in honor of her brother Charles). Along with two other students, Hittle won the competition and was commissioned to create a mural for Lane Tech High School. Remarkably, this was not the first time Hittle had been selected for a notable mural commission.
In 1908, Hittle was selected to lead two other women in creating murals for the museum at Garrett Biblical Institute (now part of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL). The project took four months to complete and covered 3,000 square feet. Even the Chicago Tribune commented on the significance of such a large commission being executed by three women at the time, publishing, “With the completion of the interior decorations Memorial Hall of the Garrett Biblical Institute of Chicago has acquired two unique distinctions. The first is that of possessing the only museum of Christian archaeology in the United States. The second, which may appear to many to be even greater than the first, is that the interior decorating of this museum was done by women.”
A year later at Lane Tech, Hittle painted Steel Mill, alongside Dock Scene and Construction Site painted by William Edouard Scott and Gordon Stevenson, respectively. Each a painting on canvas measuring 5 feet high by 18 feet wide, the three murals are featured together, telling the story of an industrial Chicago in the early 20th century. In a letter to Kate Buckingham dated 1915, the senior class president at Lane Tech said, “The painters seem to have caught the spirit of industry and to have embodied it in a vivid and realistic manner... The subject matter is very appropriate for a technical school. The walls would be bare and dreary were it not for these murals.”
But nearly 90 years later in 1994, these three murals were coated with such a heavy layer of grime that the signatures were no longer legible. There were holes, scratches and areas of paint loss, and the canvases had become weak and brittle and started to separate from the wall. Fortunately there was hope, and with donations raised through bake sales and other fundraisers, these three murals were the first to be restored as part of this historic project.
Over 100 years since she painted the mural while a student herself, hundreds of students are learning under the gaze of Margaret Hittle’s Steel Mill. Whether or not they are aware, they are learning in the shadows of one of the great public art endeavors—and subsequent preservation projects—of Chicago’s rich history. While it was lost to history for a while, Hittle’s own family has rediscovered her mural too; her great-granddaughter, also a graduate of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), has been able to visit the mural at Lane Tech. Along hundreds of other CPS murals, Steel Mill was reborn, and found a new life, allowing it to continue to tell the story of the Progressive Era and industrial Chicago, for future generations to experience and enjoy.
Becker, Heather. Art for the People. Chronicle Books, 2002. Print.
“How Three Bloomer Girls Decorated a Museum.” Chicago Tribune 27 Dec. 1908: 37. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1908/12/27/page/37/article/how-three-bloomer-girls-decorated-a-museum/
“Lane Tech Murals” http://www.lanetech.org/
About The Center’s Mural Department
For more information about Chicago murals, including those outside of the public school system, Heather Becker suggests Mary Gray's book:
Lackeitz Gray, Mary. A Guide to Chicago's Murals. The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.