Group plans to restore WPA-era art

City Council’s “Pony Express” mural rides to Washington, D.C.
Sunday, June 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:58 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Pony Express rider who has watched over the City Council chambers from the canvas of Edward Buk Ulreich’s painting for the past 21 years is fading — his paint is slowly chipping and his fabric is beginning to fray. And soon, he won’t be there at all.

Next week, conservators from Page Conservation, working on behalf of the U.S. General Services Administration, which owns the mural as part of its Fine Arts Collection, will remove it from its place behind the council dais in the Daniel Boone Government Building and take it to Washington, D.C., to preserve it for posterity. There, it will be cleaned and restored to look as crisp as it did when Ulreich painted it in 1937. The mural will also be reunited and refurbished with its pair, “Indians Watching Stage in Distance,” currently housed in the old Federal Building. The Health Adventure Center sought to preserve this mural when it bought the Federal Building in September 2003.

Marie Hunter, manager of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said the city will meet with the conservators, who have not yet seen the actual 7-by-12-foot painting. The office will help them safely assess artwork, but the restoration will be handled and paid for by the administration, which regularly selects artwork from around the country to preserve.

“Conservation work is very specific and very technical,” she said. “It’s not inexpensive. I think it is great that GSA is handling this.”

“Pony Express” and “Indians Watching Stage in Distance” are two of more than 17,000 paintings and sculptures once commissioned to enhance federal buildings that are now in the administration’s collection.

The federal Works Progress Administration commissioned Ulreich to create both murals during the Great Depression. The owner of the construction company that remodeled the building, Richard Knipp, acquired the paintings and stored them in his barn until the federal government tracked them down in 1981 and had them appraised. Knipp returned the paintings to the government, which then gave “Pony Express” over to the city.

Administration spokesman Don Carlos Morgan said the goal now that the mural is being restored is to preserve it for future generations, although he doesn’t know yet where it will be located.

“GSA and OCA have been working together to make sure this is done well and for the benefit of the artwork,” Morgan said. “This was part of our collection some time ago. It is our responsibility to take care of it.”

Hunter said conserving the mural will not alter the artist’s goal for its appearance. It will be cleaned and stabilized and will reflect the artist’s intent.

City Manager Ray Beck said he is glad the painting is finally being preserved. Although he does not know what will take its place behind him during council meetings, he wants both murals to stay in Columbia, where they were commissioned.

“These two murals are almost natives,” he said. “They’ve been here longer than most of the population.”

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