Nostalgia: Print in Paint
This WPA-commissioned mural now inspires yoga students.
The Canal Branch of the New Orleans Public Library, located at 2940 Canal St. at the corner of S. Gayoso Street, opened in 1911. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation, it was an active part of the neighborhood, serving a few nearby schools, and by the 1940s had 8,500 registered users.
In 1940, the WPA hired New Orleans artist and Arts and Crafts Club member Edward Schoenberger to paint a very large mural in the main reading room of the Canal Branch. While murals were at the time usually painted on smaller pieces of canvas and installed at a location after completion, the WPA thought it would be interesting and educational for school children to watch the process of Schoenberger, perched on scaffolding, paint the mural on one large canvas already attached to the library wall. The mural, 48 feet in length and 9 feet tall, was declared by the WPA to be the longest mural on a single piece of canvas in the nation.
The mural was dedicated on July 24, 1941, in a brief program that included music by an orchestra and a formal presentation by the WPA Art Project of Louisiana to the NOPL Board of Directors.
Shortly after the mural was finished Schoenberg joined the Air Force, painting identification aids of combat aircraft at Kelly Field in Texas and a mural at the Soldier’s Service Club in Dayton. He remained active in the arts world, and died in 2007.
The Canal Branch closed in 1958 when the new Central Library opened less than one mile away. The building has served as a variety of businesses since then, including secretarial and beauty colleges, but the mural was covered up by dropped ceilings for decades. When the flood-damaged building was bought after Hurricane Katrina, the new owner had the mural – long neglected and in terrible shape –painstakingly refurbished. Its restored and vibrant beauty now hangs over classes at Swan River Yoga.
The mural presents a history of printing, starting with prehistoric men chiseling into cave walls and flowing into Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese silk painting to monks and parchment manuscripts to Gutenberg’s press, ending with the production of a daily newspaper (a scene taken from the press room of the Times-Picayune and New Orleans States).