The Conservation Center to Conserve a Long-Lost Piece of Wisconsin History

The Conservation Center is pleased to announce that it will be the official conservator for a treasured, but almost forgotten, 1940s-era mural by artist Santos Zingale. The momentous, three-panel oil on canvas that depicts the arrival of Racine’s founder, Gilbert Knapp, was recently discovered after a fire disaster that occurred at Mitchell Elementary School in Racine, Wisconsin. Measuring about 12 feet by about 43 feet, The Landing of Captain Knapp at Racine was originally on view in a multipurpose library room at Mitchell. Due to a 1950s modernization effort, the mural ended up in the school’s basement—until disaster relief workers found the piece nearly six decades later. The Center is expecting to spend more than 9–12 months on this project.

On February 27, 2014, fire blazed through the Mitchell Elementary School in Racine, Wisconsin. The fire, thought to be electrical, began in the roof of the school’s multipurpose room and burned at such a high temperature that the steel girders supporting the roof buckled, wilted, and eventually gave way, causing most of the structure to collapse. The remainder of the campus was subjected to fire, smoke, and water damage. Demolition crews from Milwaukee-based Paul Davis National and Paul Davis Restoration and Remodeling of Southeast Wisconsin were brought in on the very night of the fire to assess and remedy the situation.

During the cleanup process, a surprising discovery was made: the school’s three-panel canvas mural painted by Surrealist artist Santos Zingale—one of Wisconsin’s most notable artists of the 20th century and a longtime art professor at the University of Wisconsin. Santos Zingale was born in East Milwaukee in 1908. During the course of his career he built a reputation as an artist who practiced social realism, with the belief that “art must help the development of human consciousness and improve social order.” This philosophy is evident in the Mitchell School mural.


The center panel depicts/illustrates Gilbert Knapp founding Port Gilbert, landing on the shore of Lake Michigan and being greeted by natives. Panels on either side show settlers working the land with horses and plows. The 12 x 43 foot mural was commissioned in 1940 as part of FDR’s New Deal Program, and was completed one year later. It was displayed until the mid-1950’s, when the school remodeled the library and took the Zingale piece off view.

Zingale Central Panel.jpg

While Mitchell Elementary was renovated in just under a month, conservation of the mural has been assigned a timeframe of 9–12 months given the delicate nature of the process and the scale of the three sections. Due to the iconography as well as the circumstances under which it was commissioned, Zingale’s mural is an especially unique piece of both secondary and primary history. 

"This rediscovered Zingale mural is an important piece of Mitchell School and Racine history,” said Stacy Tapp, Chief of Communication and Community Engagement, Racine Unified School District. “The school district is very pleased that The Conservation Center will be leading the restoration efforts. We are also looking for a suitable location to display the Zingale mural for all Racine students, staff, and community members to enjoy." 

Mitchell Elementary School staff examining the Zingale mural, circa 1996

Mitchell Elementary School staff examining the Zingale mural, circa 1996

Over the coming months, The Center will document the conservation process through our monthly newsletter, allowing our readers to witness progress from beginning to end. Stay tuned!