As part of ongoing renovation, the management of Medical Park Tower on West 38th Street plans to wall off a series of fantastical murals painted in 1967 by Mexican artist Rafael Navarro because they are too fragile to peel off.
Austin painting conservator Mark van Gelder said there could be another option: Take out sections of the walls behind the beloved murals that are likely not load-bearing.
Last week, musician Sara Hickman alerted the arts and historical communities that the murals were endangered, after seeing signs about the plans posted near the murals. Since then, she has been leading the effort to save them by contacting museum leaders, City Council members and preservationists.
A spokeswoman for Chicago-based Lillibridge, which operates the medical facility, said that, rather than risk removing the canvas directly, the company plans to “encapsulate” the murals.
“The murals were originally painted on canvas and shipped to Austin for installation at the time the building was constructed in 1967,” said Louise Adhikari. “Each single canvas is adhered to the wall it is mounted upon and we have been advised there is a very high risk that any attempt to remove the paintings will result in significant damage to the paintings.”
According to the renovation plan, the murals will be preserved, but hidden from sight.
“While the murals will not be part of the updated design aesthetic of the building, in order to protect the paintings we will be constructing a new wall in front of each of these murals to accommodate the new interior finishes, ” Adhikari said. “Lillibridge is documenting this process during the construction project and will maintain the records related to these murals for the future.”
The significant midcentury tower was designed in 1967 by the noted firm Fehr & Granger. The two murals, each 9-by-29 feet and covered with a complex cosmology, are cherished by the Austin public, as indicated by the strongly pro-mural comments on social media over the weekend.
“The two murals really are, in my opinion, fabulous, and I have admired them for years,” said architectural historian Charles Peveto. “They truly are a treasure and hopefully will be saved in place in an equally important architectural property.”
As reported in an Austin Answered column in the American-Statesman in 2018, the origin story of the murals can be found in “Rafael Navarro: Murals for Medical Park Tower,” written in 1967 by Thomas M. Cranfill.
“On the afternoon and evening of Aug. 25, 1967, a brilliant company gathered in the ancient Teatro Arbeu in Mexico City to see for the first and last time in Mexico the two murals Rafael Navarro has executed for Medical Park Tower in Austin,” Cranfill wrote. “The murals, oil on canvas, each 9 feet tall and 29 feet long, are soon to be divested of their stretcher sticks, rolled up, and sent to Austin.”
Navarro, born in Michoacan of Tarascan background, studied at the San Carlos Academy of Art, also with Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and Armando Valdes, in Mexico City, then he went to Paris for further study. He worked in traditional genres, including portraits, landscapes and still-life drawings and paintings.
After they were vandalized in 1984, the murals were restored by artist Navarro and again by conservator van Gelder in 2006 and 2007.
A Lillebridge representative had contacted van Gelder five or six ago about the murals and he told them, simply: Do not take them down.
“They could be removed,” van Gelder said. “How complex the process would be and how much risk there would be for the murals themselves would really depend on the nature of the wall behind them. I would think if it’s an interior wall in a modern building it’s probably not a supporting wall. You could find layers of cinderblock, plywood and/or sheetrock, with the canvas glued to that. The way to remove them is cut the wall out, if they are not structural, and then rebuild that section of the wall.”
Peeling the canvas directly off the wall is a much touchier option.
“That’s very stressful on the paint and the canvas,” van Gelder said. “They had been attacked with acid, so how fragile the canvas is — you could get to one of those acid damaged areas and it could tear easily. Bottom line: They can be removed and it’s just a matter of determining what the best process for that is and how involved that process would be.”
Van Gelder said that constructing a cover wall is a partial option: “At least this way, the next more enlightened generation of building owners can uncover them.”