City Quotient: The mural nobody wanted

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

I would love to know the back story of the large and wonderful mural at the Columbus Convention Center. The women in their gossamer dresses are so poetic. Is the picture meant to be an allegory?

Columbus' newest high school was to be the pride of the city. As such, it needed a magnificent piece of artwork to highlight its grand auditorium.

But a scene with beautiful women in long, flowing dresses swaying to the music of a band wasn't what the principal had in mind.

Central High School was built in 1924 on the west bank of the Scioto River as the first building in the Civic Center Plan crafted after the 1913 flood gave city fathers the chance to remake the area along the river. A massive 13-by-70-foot mural was commissioned to be painted on the wall above the school's auditorium by nationally renowned Columbus artist Emerson Burkhart and federally funded by the Depression-era Public Works of Art Project.

The finished work, titled "Music," was intended to celebrate the musical arts. Instead, it was deemed too risqué by Central's principal, and almost as soon as the mural was completed in 1938, the principal ordered that it be covered with a coat of paint. Controversy raged, drawing national attention about censorship and the arts, and Burkhart even offered to repaint the mural for free (his original fee was $3,000), but no dice. "Music" would remain hidden for the next six decades.

Fortunately for Columbus, the story didn't end there.

When the loss of the mural became an all-too-real possibility in the mid-1990s-more than 10 years after Central had closed-due to the planned move of COSI to the site, a grass-roots community rescue effort took hold. The mural originally was painted on seven canvas panels, and art conservators determined that the panels could be removed without damage. Public and private funding secured their removal and storage, but there was little funding to pay for taking off the over-painting and repairing the mural. Worse, where could a 910-square-foot painting be reinstalled? It took seven years, but the answers were forthcoming.

Nearly 1,000 students from Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center volunteered for the task of restoring the mural. They tediously worked one square inch at a time (and there were 131,000 square inches), with cotton balls and a cleaning solution that left the original oil paint intact. Lessons on history, science, art, music and discussions of censorship were worked into their classes as the project progressed, culminating with a big celebration when the restoration work was completed in 2005.

By that time, an agreement had been reached with the Greater Columbus Convention Center that the wall area above the entry to Battelle Hall could accommodate the mural. One end of it had to turn a corner to fit, but thanks to the passion of some of Columbus' preservationists and the work of dozens of Fort Hayes students, the mural again looks vibrant and alive in its new permanent home.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions tocityquotient@columbusmonthly.comand the answer might appear in a future column.