Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Story Behind The Grover Cleveland Mural Restoration in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman

Restored Grover Cleveland mural, Photo by Michael Perlman
In an age when architectural and artistic beauty is often replaced with the mundane, one co-op board in Forest Hills engaged in a unique effort to restore a classic mural in their lobby. Coming home to The Grover Cleveland at 67-38 108th Street offers a regal experience and a lesson in American history. In a lobby distinguished by wood-paneling, terrazzo, marble, window seats, and classical furnishings and carpeting, the eye is further drawn to a mural which reads “October 28, 1886 Statue of Liberty ~ Dedication By Grover Cleveland.” The work is complete with American flags, families in period attire, and sailors in rowboats saluting. 

The stately Grover Cleveland with its cherub fountain, 67-38 108th St, Photo by Michael Perlman
This Colonial meets Art Moderne building, recognizable by its curved corner brick terraces, a circular driveway alongside a cherub bird bath on a lush landscaped lawn, inner gardens, and florid lattice-work leading to sleek brass and glass doors, was designed in 1949 by an award-winning duo, architect Philip Birnbaum (1907 – 1996) and developer Alfred Kaskel (1901 – 1968), president of Carol Management. It is part of the series of “presidential buildings” that line 108th Street and Yellowstone Boulevard, and is nearly a twin of the adjacent George Washington Apartments, which once featured a mural of its namesake, rumored to be concealed. 

“The board felt our mural was part of The Grover Cleveland’s history, so when we redid the lobby, we made the mural the focal point, decorated accordingly, and even the decorators were impressed with the restoration,” said board president Leslie Siegel. Unfortunately, it was neglected and vandalized, so six years ago, the board appointed Jack Kupersmith Fine Art Restoration, and today the mural remains in pristine condition. Siegel proudly expressed, “He removed the areas that were damaged with markers, such as Lady Liberty’s eyes, took off years of dust and dirt, and filled in missing areas.” 

Restored Grover Cleveland mural in an elegant Colonial lobby of The Grover Cleveland, Photo by Michael Perlman
Among the residents who are also pleased is Michael Buscemi. “Nine years ago, when I saw the lobby and the mural, I knew I wanted to live here. I love how the mural shows the president for whom the building was named after, and it is a nice panorama of the old New York. Every city has new buildings, but the historic ones give our city its strength and individuality.” 

Fine art restoration specialist Jack Kupersmith in his studio, Photo by Shana Schnur Photography
For Jack Kupersmith, who works with high-end galleries and private clients, and whose expertise includes the restoration of murals and antique paintings to modern art, sculptures, watercolors, and wood panels, restoring The Grover Cleveland’s mural was a two-week project. “Preservation of the mural is important from a historical and artistic point of view, and it makes me feel proud that I was able to bring it back to its original state,” said Kupersmith who is grateful for his trade. “My father owned a restoration studio and taught me everything I know. I worked for him for 25 years, and when he retired, I became president of the corporation.”

Kupersmith recalled the restoration’s behind-the-scenes aspect. “The mural had to be cleaned, filings had to be made where details were missing, and filings had to be caulked down and isolated. At that point, I was able to in-paint and match the colors and details of the mural. Once the in-painting dried, I was able to varnish it with a medium shine finish.” He also recalled how cleaning the mural was an act of precision. “I couldn’t use any harsh cleaners, but only very soft ones, since I did not want the painting to be skinned.” 

Builder Alfred Kaskel & Architect Philip Birnbaum, 1st prize building award by Queens Chamber of Commerce, Courtesy of Daniel Kaskel
In addition to efficient apartment layouts, murals and carefully landscaped areas are among the tasteful design features that architect Philip Birnbaum is remembered for. “My father's vision yielded a truly exemplar design that would yield elegance to posterity,” said internationally recognized artist and producer Dara Birnbaum. “He was proud of his achievements, as he came from a very impoverished situation in a Lower East Side tenement, but he really raised himself by his bootstraps and got through Columbia University's College of Architecture.”

After learning about the Grover Cleveland mural’s restoration, memories continued to surface. “My father was very close to muralist James Seeman, whose expertise was in painting large scale landscapes and scenic murals.” 

Featured in the New York World-Telegram & Sun, June 13, 1963
Mina Seeman, wife of the late James Seeman (1914 – 1994), who was regarded as a foremost American muralist, was also impressed by its restoration. In Austria, he attended the Realschule, and was the recipient of art and engineering degrees. He immigrated to America from Vienna in 1938, fleeing from the Nazis. Then he continued to study art at Pratt Institute.

She reminisced, “He was once asked when he started to paint, and replied ‘I don't remember ever not wanting to paint.’ As a very young child he sat by the window and painted. He said that he was first inspired by what he saw; a landscape, flowers, old interesting houses with age and charm. He said he would paint in his mind at night, and jump out of bed, run into his studio, and begin to paint what was in his mind.”

He originated with oils and progressed with watercolors. She recalled his paintings as analogous to how a poet writes. “He was a master in color. They were subtle and clear. He loved painting skies and oceans, which showed his talent in color and movement.”

Mina Seeman remembers him as a quiet, serious, and strong gentleman. “In his obituary, in a wall covering magazine, he was described as a gentle giant, and was that in stature and in his life's accomplishments.” In 1952, he received the year's outstanding wall covering design, and some of his works are exhibited at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

James Seeman once told The Knickerbocker News, “Americans are hungry for beauty” and “They say it is so refreshing, exhilarating to walk into a room that has personality, and not just four drab walls.”

Looking ahead, Kupersmith expressed interest in restoring other local murals, and said, “I would have to see the condition that it’s in before committing.”

Coming home to fine art in an elegant lobby, Photo by Michael Perlman
A historic attraction in a warm & welcoming lobby, Photo by Michael Perlman

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