The Wabash YMCA

Mind, Body, and Spirit by William Edouard Scott, 1936 (WPA)

Before and After


The Wabash YMCA, listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places, has had both a colorful and difficult past. Located in the historic Bronzeville district, the structure was originally built in 1913. During its heyday, from the ’20s to the ’40s, the Y served the basic needs of the black community during the Great Migration, the movement bringing African-American workers from the South to Chicago and other northern cities.

In 1936, William Edouard Scott (1884-1964) painted a mural entitled, “Mind, Body, and Spirit” for the first-floor meeting room, commemorating the guiding purposes of YMCA programs. Scott graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago. He also studied in Paris with the great Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). One of Chicago’s rare early 20th century African- American artists, he completed mural projects in Chicago for a wide variety of locations including Lane Technical High School, Shoop Elementary School, Davis Park Field House and the Pilgrim Baptist Church.

The YMCA was a social, spiritual and recreational center for blacks. One of its great historical legacies is its claim as the birthplace of Black History Month. In 1926, the idea for a Negro History Week was formulated there by scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson. In 1976, this celebration became Black History Month.

Declining membership and deterioration of the building led to its closing in 1981. In the late 1990′s, however, a nine-million dollar renovation project was undertaken by its new owners to return to the building to its rightful condition.


From years of neglect, the secco mural was in critical visual and structural condition. Secco painting applies paint to a dry wall versus fresco painting which applies paint to wet plaster. The image surface had accumulated seventy-five years of dirt, grime and air pollution. This film darkened Scott’s original palette and robbed the painting of its intended brilliance. Due to the building’s lack of environmental controls, the mural also suffered from general structural instability. This resulted in numerous surface cracks and areas of loose and lifting paint.


On January 15, 2001, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, The Center’s mural department began work at the Wabash YMCA. The weakened paint layer was first consolidated using Beva-gel and, in some areas, a 1:10 gelatin size. This required some time to complete due to the mural’s overall instability. The paint surface was then cleaned using a combination of detergent solvents and enzymes.

(Above) Cleaning details, at left and right


The wall was riveted with deep cracks and losses. These were filled using a Ph-neutral adhesive and then smoothed to plane with gesso. Areas of former loss were retouched using watercolor pigments. The paint surface was then coated with a matte varnish to protect the paint against future dirt and grime. The mural now assumes its rightful place in Chicago’s rich mural history.