The Texas Commission on the Arts (TCA) is pleased to report that the mural created by Seymour Fogel in the former Starr State office building will be preserved. The mural is an important piece of Texas modernist art that was commissioned to highlight the architecture of the building. The successful outcome of this endeavor is the result of an effort lead by the General Land Office (GLO) that involved many individuals and organizations.

In 2005, the fate of the mural became uncertain when the Starr building was vacated by the Comptroller and sold to the GLO to support the Permanent School Fund. The GLO planned to sell the building to generate funds for the Permanent School Fund. At that time, most buyers of downtown properties were tearing down existing buildings to make way for new high rises. The GLO was sensitive to the uncertain future of the mural and rallied other agencies and experts to help ensure a win-win outcome. Numerous plans were considered to relocate and preserve the mural. Relocation proved to be a challenging task as the mural is a single panel of concrete three inches thick and 10′ 8″ high and 28′ wide weighing an estimated 2,300 pounds. It was poured on site in the building and removing it from the second story windows would have been expensive and perilous. Interest was also generated in preserving the building because of its early modernist architecture. The sale of the building to Kemp Properties allows the mural to stay in place and continue to be a focal point of the original building, which will be restored to its former glory. A provision of the sale is a permanent conservation easement for the mural.

“We are very pleased that the historic building’s new owners wish to rehabilitate this important mid-century modern structure and preserve its character-defining features, including Fogel’s unique mural,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the THC. “This is one of those real places in Austin’s past that contributes to the story of the city’s more recent history and we congratulate Kemp Properties on this significant acquisition.”

For more details, see this article about the sale.

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Note:  This website was developed to provide information about the mural to the appraisal team, conservators, and the various parties involved.  It also served as a source of public information about the status of this project.

Historical Information on the Preservation Project:

The mural was painted in 1954 for then American National Bank as commission to highlight the modernist features of the new building. For more information and period pictures, go to www.texasmodernart.com and select the ANB Mural tab.

Fogel has created 22 major murals through out his life using such media as ethyl silicate (a process he helped pioneer in the 1950’s), glass and tile mosaics, oil paint on canvas, and other experimental multi-media compositions.  Of the 22, seven are in Texas and two in Austin.  The other Austin mural is an outdoor mural done in 1949 for the University Baptist church. For more information on Fogel, go here.

Condition and Location:

This mural is locate on the second floor of the Starr building and is elevated off the floor 8’ 5”.  The bottom edge of the mural is even with the ceiling behind it.  The mural appears to be painted on a concrete/stucco material (fresco secco, done with dippled strokes, creating the impression of a mosaic from a distance)  and which is embedded into a metal mesh and supported by a frame of steel girders with a metal frame.  The thickness appears to be almost 3” deep.  If it was done in panels or pieces of any kind, it is not evident.  From all appearances, it is a single panel work measuring 10’ 8” high and 28’ wide.

The mural appears to be very good condition with little to no color loss.  The stucco/concrete has a number of small but long (predominately vertical) cracks.  There was a fire alarm installed into the middle lower section of the piece and a series of holes were drilled into the work to accommodate that fixture.

The back of the mural is hidden by a paneled wall on the third floor, so the only clue we could get was to remove ceiling tiles.  The floor above sits within inches of the mural and is concrete.  You can get a sense of the framing and the depth of the piece from the shots taken behind the mural.

There is not obvious easy answer for moving this panel out of the building.  The mural is on the second floor and there is no freight elevator and the stairway is partially blocked by a low hanging ceiling. The best option would be to take the mural straight out of the second story windows by crane on the 6th street side. It would require removal of some portion of the window frame structure and would require closing all/part of the street for an unknown period of time, which may not be a trivial issue. Exiting this way would allow for packing the work into a crate and moving it as a single piece. Transporting it and storing it may prove to be additional challenges.

At the History Center, I was able to find newspaper articles on the project from the time. Some key findings are:

…. when he sits down to work on the 25-foot scaffold high above the glass-backed lobby. (There is a photo of him on the scaffolding)

“On the job” means that the mural was done in the bank lobby, amidst the hammering and hollering , smells, and sounds, of construction. Plumbers, carpenters and laborers, watching the progress in the bank, have come to like the wall. “They tell me it grows on them,” said Fogel.

“It wasn’t done at home and them pasted up there,” said the artist. “It’s a part of the wall, it grew with the bank’s interior. Naturally I started out with a sketch at home, but there were endless variations and modifications as the interior began taking shape.”

….. the medium was something new. It is called ethyl silicate, and it sinks into the marble dust and cement wall as good one-eighth of an inch, making the mural almost indestructible, impervious to the elements.”

There’s a problem, though. You make a mistake and you can’t erase and start over. “You have to chisel out a piece of the wall out and fill it in with more marble dust, ” he explained. “You can’t make many mistakes like that.”

I located most of the original architectural plans for the building, including one page relating specifically to the mural wall. The plans indicate the wall was part of the original construction and was created to the artist’s specifications (which were not included) by the construction crew.  The architects are Kuehne, Brooks and Barr.

•View the Casagrande Mural Appraisals (in PDF format)
• View the Point 2/Northern California Art Conservators Proposal for Structural Engineering Services (in PDF format)

Contact:
Laura Wiegand
Director of Programs & Technology
Texas Commission on the Arts
PO Box 13406
Austin TX  78711
512/936-6565
laura@arts.state.tx.us