The Changing (He)art of New Orleans: A WPA Mural’s Second Life

In reference to its former literary home, the mural depicts the history of writing from caveman etchings to the modern printing press.

Editor's Note

"The Changing (He)art of New Orleans" examines some of the sweeping urban planning projects taking place in the center of the city through the lens of public art—what is being restored, what is vanishing, and what has already disappeared. The second installment in this essay series looks at the unlikely restoration of a 1941 WPA mural in a building on Canal just above Broad, recently converted into a yoga studio.

In the open second-story room of the yoga studio, participants in an aerial yoga class twist down from the ceiling on cloth ropes; on another afternoon the escalating chants of Hindu mantras reach up to those same high ceilings; a gong and crystal bowls of different sizes reverberate with haunting, cleansing notes during monthly concerts. Huge windows provide a view of the buildings and oak branches on either side, sunlight reflecting off the gleaming maple floors.

The space is anchored by a mural, which dates from when the building was a public library. The 50-foot-long mural stretches along the west wall and depicts the history of writing in the vivid style made famous by Diego Rivera — strong colors with exaggerated sinews and intense plays of shadow and light. A caveman chisels an animal’s outline into rock while real deer kneel beside. On the other side of that rock, Chinese court calligraphers carefully line up sheets of paper to dry. Egyptians smooth papyrus and this scene gives way to monks huddling around a table to transcribe holy texts. In the last panel, brawny, overall-clad pressmen feed reams of newsprint into a printing press and unfold the day’s edition.

In 1941, a 26-year-old Edward Schoenberger painstakingly mounted canvas to the wall and painted the mural on a commission from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The federally funded Depression-era program sought to employ artists for public work and was modeled after the civic arts program in Mexico that funded Rivera. Under the WPA’s auspices, writers in every region of the United States gathered folktales and oral histories. Architects designed art deco embellishments for public buildings while the murals of painters bloomed on walls inside. The Mid-City library where Schoenberger painted the mural is a grand, gilded age building, one of the original public libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the century. At that time, the surrounding area expanded and became more upmarket thanks to a pumping station put in at Broad and Bienville in the 1890s to prevent flooding on the low-lying streets behind Esplanade Ridge. In 1901, the Canal streetcar line was extended to City Park. The 1940s proved a peak for the neighborhood’s mid-century development. In the following decade more industry would cut through the center of the neighborhood: huge railroad arteries and warehouses along Howard Avenue, which became the footprint for the construction of I-10. Seedy motels quickly began to flank the interstate. The Parish Prison at the courthouse on Tulane Avenue grew.

When Schoenberger was commissioned to paint the mural under the Works Progress Administration, the building on Canal Street was a grand public library.

The former public library at Gayoso and Canal has gone through a series of transformations in the post-World War II years as the neighborhood around it went downhill because of suburban flight and urban divestment. The Canal streetcar line was suspended in 1964 (it would be restored 40 years later). Houses and apartments in the area were subdivided, with landlords cutting corners on maintenance. The branch library was closed and turned into a business school, then into the site of public programs for Spanish-speakers, and finally, a shady beauty college raided by the FBI in 2003 for embezzling federal money. Each incarnation has been attended by shoddy renovation work. A hastily-constructed ceiling cut through the bottom third of the mural, covering it with plaster, while parts of the wall with the mural were demolished by holes for air ducts, which punched through wide sections of the canvas. The plot of John Ed Bradley’s 2003 novel Restoration hinges on a controversial lost WPA mural in a dilapidated beauty school on Magazine Street. The state of the building described in the novel is drawn from what the Canal Street beauty college was like a decade ago: leaking air-conditioning vents protruding from a grime-encrusted mural, pink vinyl-covered beautician’s chairs, yellowed, flaked paint, and patchy roofing.

The once-grand branch library further languished after Katrina, which inundated the low-lying part of Mid-City. Schoenberger died at age 92 after spending much of his life in Wausau, a town on the Wisconsin River, one of the tributaries of the Mississippi. The condition of his largest and most loved work was always a source of pain during visits back to family in New Orleans. But 2007, the year of his death, also proved a hinge for the recovery of Mid-City and for the library building in particular.

In 2008, the building was purchased by Sylvi Beaumont, a chiropractor, yoga practitioner, and art lover. Beaumont has presided over several major architectural renovations in New Orleans, such as the Rue de la Course coffee shop on Oak Street where she has an adjoining office. The damaged former library was in bad shape — its windows were nailed shut and the wood floors a mess of rot from flooding — but Beaumont saw potential in its shuttered windows, capacious former reading room, and wide stoop. When she discovered the bisected, faded mural in the building’s ad hoc, poorly constructed attic Beaumont committed to restore it along with updating the building. She contacted her friend, artist Jeanne-Louise Chauffe. Chauffe, who first met Beaumont as a patient, had recreated French court paintings for Beaumont’s house on Henry Clay. When Beaumont approached her in 2009 about restoring Schoenberger’s mural, Chauffe was nervous: though not a professional conservator, she instantly grasped the historical significance of the project and the extent of the damage. She was daunted by her own inexperience but persuaded to take the project on. “Every move was in some way excruciating,” she recalled in a recent interview at her Mid-City apartment where, during the sweltering summer she spent restoring the mural, she would frequently return for showers and sanity. The three-foot-square holes in the mural for air-conditioning vents meant Chauffe had to restore parts of the wall with chicken wire and plaster and repaint those patches of mural to blend in with the original, which she retouched with jewel-tone paint to transfuse Schoenberger’s vivid colors with new life. During those months, Chauffe felt guided by Schoenberger’s ghost as she came to know him intimately, long stroke by long stroke.

The mural inside Swan River Yoga was painted in 1941 by Edward Schoenberger and restored nearly 70 years later by Jeanne-Louise Chauffe.

Today the building and its stunning mural show no trace of their decades of disrepair. The building itself has been painted a cheery blue and white, with lanterns stretching from live oak branches on Canal to the red front door. The yoga studio is likely more the future of the neighborhood than the boarded-up apartment building beside it, also built about a century ago and currently marked with an abandoned properties notice, like many buildings in the patchy residential neighborhood between Canal Street and the jail and courthouse on Tulane Avenue. Though it varies block to block, the neighborhood still suffers from pre- and post-Katrina waves of blight, slumlordism, crime, and abandonment. But its historic architecture and proximity to the streetcar line bode well for investment and residents to come. The library is also on the right side of Broad Avenue. South of Broad, 265 homes in Lower Mid-City are being destroyed or moved and a large hotel was recently dynamited to make room for the coming hospital district. North of Broad, meanwhile, Swan River Yoga is a clear locus for an inflow of energy to the threadbare blocks. Over the coming year, the studio plans to add a vegetarian restaurant in its Mid-City location and more bhakti, a devotional and celebratory form of yoga: more singing, more dancing, more live percussion inside the storied building, an anchor for the neighborhood’s present and a conduit to its vibrant past.

Editor's Note

This is the second essay in a series by Ingrid Norton. Part one focused on two murals in and around the B.W. Cooper housing project as it becomes Marrero Commons.