WALWORTH — Walworth Elementary School houses a forgotten treasure.
In 1932, the Walworth School Board commissioned Garret V. Sinclair, a Milwaukee artist, to do a patriotic mural for the school as part of the Depression-era federal Public Works Art Project.
The painting was completed and installed inside the school in 1934 at a cost to the district of about $27.
However, the mural is not on any state or federal list of Public Works Art Projects.
“The mural is lost,” said Nancy Rasmussen, a member of the Walworth School Historical Committee.
The work of art is not listed with either the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., or the Wisconsin State Historical Society. The school history committee wants the mural recorded and recognized for its significance.
The committee contacted, Frank Breneisen of Fontana, a retired history professor, who is communicating with the Smithsonian Institution.
Kelley Freeman, a former school board member and now a member of the history committee, showed the mural and told of its history July 26 during a history tour of the elementary school.
About 30 people participated in the tour, about half of them former students, some of them graduating before 1959 or earlier, when the Walworth school building also housed a high school. After 1959, grades nine through 12 were shifted to Big Foot High School.
The heart of the Walworth school building was built in 1902. Sections were added over the years to enlarge the building and make it more modern, but the 1902 structure remains almost untouched.
The mural was commissioned in 1932 with the support of the school board. The school put up $27 for press board and paint, said Rasmussen. When completed, the painting was valued at $900.
The mural was installed at the main entrance to the school, which at that time faced Beloit Street to the north. What was once the main door of the old school is now considered a back entrance.
The current main entrance, in the 1998 school addition, now faces Fremont Street to the west.
But, for more than 60 years, students entered the school and walked past the mural on their way to class, as they either walked upstairs to the left or took a ground-level corridor to the right.
The mural, about 10 feet tall and 18 1/2 feet wide, was done in 10 panels because Sinclair’s workshop was too small to paint it as a whole, said Rasmussen.
At the top is an image depicting the signing of Declaration of Independence. A middle panel shows busts of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The bottom panel is Christopher Columbus at the bow of one of his ships.
On the left are two panels, one of Washington at Valley Forge, and another depicting modern times, with an art deco skyscraper, airplanes, blimps, and a scientist peering into a bottom of a glass test tube.
On the right are a panel with pioneers and a panel with Lincoln visiting Union troops during the Civil War.
Flanking the picture of Columbus on the right is the Declaration of Independence and on the left is the Gettysburg Address, both with lettering done so perfectly that at first glance one might mistake them for metal letters on a bronze plaque.
Located at eye level, Christopher Columbus’ face has been worn away by book bags, backpacks and shoulders, said Freeman.
Every school day, students walked past the mural without knowing about its significance or history, said Freeman, who was once one of those students.
Breneisen is familiar with Public Works Arts Project murals. Twenty years ago, he cataloged 40 of the surviving murals in old post offices and school buildings in Iowa for the federal General Services Agency.
The catalogue and photographs of the murals that Breneisen took are now in the Smithsonian.
Breneisen said Rasmussen sent him documentation from the school board archives about the mural and the artist who painted it. He said he sent a letter to the Smithsonian about the mural. The national museum is interested in knowing more, he said.
He said he expects a response from the Smithsonian by September.
“The mural is a good mural, and it’s reasonably good condition,” Breneisen said. “We know the artist and where it was painted.”
Some restoration work may have been done on the mural in the 1950s or 1960s, he said. The restoration work was faithful to the original.
More restoration work may be necessary in the future, he added.
The mural is done in the patriotic and nostalgic styles of the Great Depression.
“There was a lot of patriotism then and a lot of concern about us as a nation,” Breneisen said. “This mural is pretty typical.”
More impressive, he said, the mural is still located where it was originally placed.
“Other schools have destroyed murals during expansions or remodelings,” he said.
Breneisen did not seem surprised that neither the state nor the Smithsonian have a record of this mural. He said all murals done under the federal Public Works Arts Projects had to document the projects which were then sent to the Public Works Administration, which no longer exists. Over time, documents were lost or accidentally destroyed, he said.