Post office for sale, but mural is a separate deal
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., Feb. 5, 2013
While the Norwich Post Office went up for sale at the end of last year, one piece of its history will be a separate deal with any potential buyer. The fate of the structure’s distinctive mural, “Taking Up Arms -1776,” painted in 1940, will be negotiated separately, said postal service officials.
The mural, painted by Uruguayan-born artist George Kanelous, depicts a group of local farmers (presumably militiamen) in the fields of 18th-century Norwich, receiving muskets from a mounted Continental soldier. The painting was executed as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) art project, aimed at providing both employment for artists during the Great Depression and decorative embellishment for public buildings.
“We classify this as an asset of the U.S. Postal Service,” said Dallan Wordekemper, the federal preservation officer for the U.S. Postal Service. “When we transfer [ownership of] the building, we do not transfer the art with the building.” Instead, the USPS negotiates a long-term lease arrangement with the building’s buyer, leaving the art work in place for 25 years. The lease can be renewed in five-year intervals under the condition that the art work is properly maintained and cared for. “If that does not work, we have to consider moving [the painting] to another location in the community,” he said. Wordekemper said he believed the Norwich work was painted on canvas, rather than directly on the post office wall.
Wordekemper said that another WPA mural at the Fairfield, Conn., post office is currently the focus of a local task force, working to determine the painting’s eventual home once the Fairfield post office is closed.
While the WPA was largely responsible for the construction of roads, federal buildings and other public structures during the Great Depression, it reserved 1 percent of funding for “murals and sculpture of distinguished quality suitable to the embellishment of Federal buildings,” according to documentation in the National Archive. Kanelous and other artists received their commissions to complete these works through a jurying process involving a panel of noted painters or sculptors.
According to an article in the Slater Museum newsletter by museum director Vivian Zoe, Kanelous was born to Greek parents in 1918, attended high school in Brooklyn and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He attended the Art Students League in New York City as a scholarship student, studying under Yasou Kuniyoshi and muralist James Daugherty. His murals decorated walls of the New York University’s School of Dentistry as well as the U.S. Post Office in East Walpole, Mass.
While Kanelous’ work was represented at New York’s Phoenix Gallery in the 1960s and '70s, most of his paintings are in private collections and records of them are scant, according to Zoe. His known body of work is small, since he frequently painted over previous works that he felt were flawed, she said. The artist died in Florida in 1998, just weeks after completing his last work, “Gateway to Heaven,” for the Holiday Inn UCF in Orlando.
The Norwich Post Office building itself is still in operation, and postal officials don’t expect it to sell anytime soon with current market conditions. “We do nothing until the building is sold,” said Maureen Marion, the Postal Service’s regional manager for communications. She said the 33,000-square-foot structure was built in 1903, “when we would hand-sort mail there. We don’t do that anymore.”
Besides housing a large amount of under-utilized space, the building is not handicapped-accessible. “That is a hardship for people,” she said.
While current plans call for the Postal Service retail operations to move to its distribution center on Route 82 near the Bozrah town line, Marion said it could be possible for a potential buyer to rent space in the existing structure back to the postal service. “We’ll be looking for what’s right for where we are,” she said.
Bill Bronson, vice president and partner at CBRE New England, the real estate firm handling the sale, said the asking price for the structure is $550,000. He said the building is being marketed as potential space for a restaurant or offices. “It could be many different things,” he said.