Preservationists fearful about the fate of La Jolla post office mural
By Ashley Mackin
Adding to concerns surrounding the possible sale of the La Jolla post office at 1140 Wall St., are worries about the Belle Baranceanu mural that hangs there.
Post office supporters are concerned that if the building is sold, the mural, which is rare and historically significant, will not be properly preserved.
The La Jolla Light is working to report a monetary value for the mural.
Commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project during the New Deal in 1934, the mural depicts a colorful, cubist-style La Jolla Village landscape. As part of its PWA project during the height of The Great Depression, the U.S. government turned to local artists to create paintings for federal buildings, particularly post offices. Across the country, 1,400 murals were created as a result.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) oversaw these pieces until its termination in 1942.
Currently, the General Services Administration (GSA) inventories the pieces if they hang in a federal building the GSA owns. They do not own the Wall Street post office, the United States Postal Service does.
La Jolla Historical Society Director Health Fox said the WPA commissioned Baranceanu to do seven pieces, but only two are still in existence — the one at the La Jolla post office and one in the Balboa Club in Balboa Park. Non-WPA works by Baranceanu are exhibited in galleries across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“Preserving the heritage art and architecture of our community, like this mural and the post office, is a vital link to our cultural, aesthetic and economic legacies — all of the things that make us who we are,” said Leslie Davis, chair of the Save Our La Jolla Post Office Task Force.
Davis said her big concern is that because the federal government owns the art (which is painted on a canvas and mounted to the post office wall) it may not have the expertise required to protect it.
“It seems there is not an agreed upon plan related specifically to the art. There have been cases of other art being taken off government properties and never seen again,” she said.
Fox said it would take a high level of competence to properly move and preserve the work of art, should the need arise.
“Moving (the piece) somewhere is a very delicate procedure and it requires a very high level of expertise from a trained art conservator, such as what they have at the Balboa Park Conservation Center,” he said.
“It could be done, but it really has to be done by experts in the field who know how to do that to avoid any damage to the work.”
Davis said she has no assurances the government would utilize those experts if they sold the building and mural. “Very little is known about the government’s procedures related to WPA art … The Federal government, as the owner of the art, is responsible for it, but I’m not sure if there is or is not regulation related to ‘maintenance’ and ‘storage’ procedures,” Davis said.
Don Smeraldi, manager of corporate communications for the USPS Pacific Area, said “The mural will always be owned by the Postal Service, and if the building were sold, the Postal Service would have the new buyer sign a loan agreement. The mural would be part of the covenants and restrictions placed on the deed, and the Postal Service would do its best to find an entity that would oversee these covenants and restrictions.”
He also said the USPS would consider loaning the mural to the Historical Society.
A specialist in how the USPS would care for the mural could not be reached by deadline.
The U.S. Postal Service announced its plan to sell the Wall Street building and relocate its services in January, as part of a nation-wide cost-cutting plan.
Soon after, the Save Our La Jolla Post Office Task Force was formed to prevent the sale. The building is eligible for historical designation, partially because of the mural.
“This work of art, and this work of architecture, both have the same historical lineage to them … and should be retained in the Village where they are,” Fox said.
He added the installation of the mural is, in a way, a predecessor to the current Murals of La Jolla program, which is installing temporary murals across La Jolla.
Davis added, “The mural is associated with our heritage, both as Americans and La Jollans. As natural beings, we are more stable and healthy when connected to our roots. We have already lost so many of our heritage treasures, we risk the slow death of our community identity.”
Who was Belle Baranceanu?
■ Belle Goldschlager Baranceanu was born July 17, 1902 in Chicago to Rumanian immigrants, who separated during her childhood.
■ She grew up on her maternal grandparents’ North Dakota farm.
■ She studied at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts under Anthony Angarola, to whom she was engaged until his death in 1929.
■ Active in Chicago during the 1920s as a teacher and exhibitor, she worked in Los Angeles, 1927-1928.
■ She moved to San Diego in 1933. During the Great Depression she painted murals at the La Jolla post office and Roosevelt Jr. High School as part of the Public Works of Art Project.
■ She exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Institute, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Denver Art Museum, and others.
■ Baranceanu taught at the La Jolla School of Arts & Crafts, and Frances Parker School.
■ She died in La Jolla on Jan. 17, 1988.
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