Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Restoration an option for DU’s Thompson mural

historic photo

The Brown Palace's New Casanova Room in 1938. Later, renovations destroyed the Thompson mural on the ceiling.

An art restoration expert has concluded that a rediscovered mural painted in Margery Reed Hall in the 1930s by a famous Colorado artist and former University of Denver educator can be successfully restored.

“I’m thrilled. I’m absolutely thrilled,” says Karen Newman, dean of the Daniels College of Business, which is developing plans to renovate the space. “We had wanted to replicate it (using) a rendering of the mural, but then a happy coincidence: We discovered the mural is here. Now we can restore the real deal.”

The mural is a vivid depiction of Shakespearean figures that was painted in 1929 in DU’s Little Theatre. The artist was famed modernist painter John Edward Thompson, who taught painting and drawing at DU in the 1930s and ’40s. Two years after the mural was completed, it was painted over by then-theater director Walter Sinclair in what Thompson described as an act of “vandalism.”

For the next 76 years the mural was largely forgotten until inquiries by the DU community newspaper The Source led University art curator Dan Jacobs to investigate. He enlisted art restoration specialist Lisa Capano to determine whether the thick paint covering the mural could be removed.

“There are six different layers. Most are black but some are purple and blue,” she said after experimenting with a small test area. “It’s time-consuming, but it comes off easily and it didn’t hurt the original.”

University Architect Mark Rodgers says DU officials knew what the mural looked like from archived photographs. They had been attempting to replicate it as part of the renovation of the building into performance space for both Daniels and the University as a whole. They never dreamed the real thing was hidden under the paint.

“The exciting news is that Dan Jacobs found out about the mural and investigated to see if it could be restored,” Rodgers says. “It’s not just a copy.”

Jacobs is using another Thompson mural painted in the Colorado Business Bank on 17th Street in Denver as a color reference. “It should be a good guide for us,” Jacobs says.

A third Thompson mural that also was painted over suffered a more somber outcome. That was a mural painted in the 1930s on a recessed portion of the ceiling of what is today Ellyngton’s restaurant in the Brown Palace Hotel. The painting of jazz figures was obscured in the 1940s and forgotten, says Brown Palace historian Julia Kanellos.

Inquiries by The Source led hotel engineers to investigate.

“We know there was a mural, but it’s gone,” Kanellos says. “We went all over the restaurant. There’s nothing. It was very disappointing.”

Kanellos speculates that because the mural was painted over, it was inadvertently destroyed during renovations to the restaurant in the 1960s. The loss is of concern to the history-minded Brown Palace, Kanellos says, but not financial, since a mural’s value lies in how it’s treated — not what it’s worth.

“There’s no market for a mural painting,” Jacobs explains. “Historians will tell you it’s an important work, but they’re not going to pull out a checkbook. It’s not a marketable commodity; it’s just a legacy item.”

Read more about the historic mural and DeBoer property.

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