The nation was mired in the Depression when a Los Angeles artist put brush to plywood in 1935 and created a series of fanciful murals for the Santa Monica Public Library.
Painted in rainbow hues, and strongly influenced by mythology, Asian themes and the Southern California landscape, Stanton Macdonald-Wright's panels depicted two streams of humankind's development -- one technological, spotlighting achievements in science and engineering, and the other imaginative, underscoring religion, art and literature.
When the library moved in the mid-1960s and the old building was slated for demolition, the 39 panels appeared destined for the dustbin, until a few Santa Monicans pleaded successfully for their rescue. The murals were hastily pried off walls and shipped to a Smithsonian Institution warehouse in Washington, D.C. There, they languished unseen for four decades.
Now, the murals are back home.
Conservators in Culver City are painstakingly cleaning and repairing the panels and installing them one by one in the city's new and contemporary $57.7-million main public library, scheduled to open in January.
Admirers of Macdonald-Wright, a modernist pioneer who died in Pacific Palisades in 1973, hope that the remounting of his ambitious murals -- titled "Technical and Imaginative Pursuits of Early Man" -- will help resurrect his reputation while reminding those who see them of a once popular art form.
For many Santa Monicans, the murals' return represents a dream come true. "It places them back in the context from which they came," said Roger Genser, a former city arts commissioner who 20 years ago joined the fight to bring the murals back.
The murals are, indeed, back in the context from which they came, if that means a municipal library. But the milieu has radically changed. The new library, designed by the award-winning Santa Monica architecture firm of Moore Ruble Yudell, is distinctly different from the Spanish-style building that previously housed these New Deal artworks. Whereas Macdonald-Wright designed the murals to fit in spaces narrow and wide, and around windows, doorways and arches, they are now being mounted on expanses of neutrally painted walls that emphasize their odd shapes.
"In the original library, they were sequential around a symmetrical room," said Clay Holden, a project designer with Moore Ruble Yudell. "We weren't going to be able to replicate the entire sequence."
Instead, designers worked to keep individual scenes together but mixed them up around the building. As a result, the opportunity to track Macdonald-Wright's vision of man's sweeping progress from the Stone Age to the modern age is, unfortunately, lost. To compensate, the library plans to label the panels and to offer educational tours and brochures to explain the murals' original scope and Macdonald-Wright's importance.
"He was one of the earliest abstractionists in California and had an international reputation when he did the murals," said Ilene Susan Fort, a mural expert who is serving as a consultant on the project. "He helped establish the importance of mural painting in California. The murals were highly praised at the time and encouraged more federally sponsored projects throughout the state."
The series was the first federally sponsored mural project in Southern California. It arose under the Public Works of Art Project, a forerunner of the Works Progress Administration. Macdonald-Wright proposed the project and labored on it for 18 months, receiving no pay.
The panels contained 160 figures, including 46 portraits, covering about 2,000 square feet of wall. Macdonald-Wright painted a broad array of individuals, including Edgar Allan Poe, Lao Tzu (the great Taoist thinker), Buddha and Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic induction. For fun, he included a portrait of his father, his friend Thomas Hart Benton and his chow chow dogs.
As the artist saw it, imagination and technical progress ultimately coalesced to create a new form of expression, the motion picture, and one of the final panels features Santa Monica-born starlet Gloria Stuart (who decades later would portray the elderly Rose in the 1997 film "Titanic") at the center of a busy stage set, with the Santa Monica Bay as a dazzling backdrop. Until recently, the moving-picture panel had been on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it is now being conserved for installation at the library.