After being off view for a decade, two Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era murals were reinstalled in mid-February at Pelham Bay Park’s Split Rock Golf House. The 1936 works by Allen Saalburg were removed from the walls of the Bronx building and cleaned, stabilized, and conserved, with their curious imagery of horses, bulls, flowers, scrolls, and other layered details finally back in place above two fireplace mantels.
“They really complement the decor of the room visually, with the blacks, grays, and yellows,” Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquities at NYC Parks, told Hyperallergic. The murals, each over 10 feet tall, were taken down during a restoration of the entire building at the Pelham Bay & Split Rock Golf Courses. Kuhn explained that Saalburg was head of New York City’s WPA mural project, a role, the story goes, that he got after Robert Moses admired his design for a hot dog cart. The artist, who died in 1987, had a long career in commercial painting and silkscreens, with numerous magazine covers for Fortune, Vanity Fair, and the Saturday Evening Post. He also did theatrical designs (some of which are now in the Whitney Museum of American Art), and murals for the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he designed a poster for the Office of War Information that showed the American flag in tatters, still waving before a cloud of smoke, with the words “Remember Dec. 7th!” in red.
The 1930s were a particularly busy time for New York City’s parks, with public pools built across the five boroughs, and the construction of Riverside Park. Saalburg painted the murals when the Pelham Bay course was renovated in 1936 as a WPA-funded project. Its stately Greek Revival club house and the new 18-hole course both opened on May 7, 1936, with Saalburg’s murals installed in the central parlor room. Kuhn said that of the seven mural projects created by Saalburg, encompassing work at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, the barroom of Tavern on the Green, and the terrace restaurant at the Central Park Zoo, only two are extant. Aside from the golf course murals, the other surviving project is inside the lobby of the Arsenal in Central Park. The huge work painted by Saalburg with his team of assistants covers the walls from floor to ceiling with military scenes and tableaux of people enjoying the park, including ice-skating and carriage rides illustrated in a style reminiscent of 19th-century Currier and Ives prints.
The Split Rock Golf House murals are more modern in their aesthetic, with the collage of imagery surrounded by painted frames with foliage-like flourishes. In one, a pile of coins tumbles in front of a horse head, doll, disembodied head, and decorative tower topped with a scroll, while in the background two white horses run across an empty landscape. In the other, gold chains spill over a dark ledge, and flowers, a woman’s face, and a steer with its horns draped with fabric mingle in front of a column. “They’re more in keeping with the commercial work he did where he’s fusing different stylistic ideas of that time, with Surrealism and late Cubism and even a little Rococo with these plaster undulating areas that surround the panels,” Kuhn said. “It reminds me a little bit of Chirico, with some whimsy thrown in.”
The restoration of the large-scale murals was carried out by West Lake Conservators. Years of wear in the public space, including water damage, cracking, and paint loss, made it a complicated process, especially as the canvases were marouflaged, or glued, right on the walls. Their conservation report describes the extensive cleaning, infill painting for lost texture (large chunks were missing from areas like the horse and steer), and new supports that were added for their reinstallation. As Kuhn stated, “The murals are really special, and they haven’t looked this good since they were put up.”
The Split Rock Golf House is at the Pelham Bay and Split Rock Golf Courses (870 Shore Road, Pelham Bay Park, The Bronx).