IU employees work to save hidden murals from former Wishard Hospital

Guest post courtesy of Kelsey Tharp, Physical Plant intern: 

Four murals painted by a group of Hoosier artists have been rescued from a wing in the former Wishard Hospital.

The murals decorated the walls of what was known as the hospital’s Burdsal Unit, named for Indianapolis businessman Alfred Burdsal. The ward opened in 1914 and was dedicated to treating both children and adult patients.

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In the former Wishard Hospital, lockers once covered this mural of children playing tug of war. Photo courtesy of Michael Ruzga

During a recent walk-through of the property, which IU now owns, associate university architect for research Richard Thompson realized the fifth floor of the Burdsal Unit was covered in murals hidden behind a thick coat of paint.

Although it was impossible to see the majority of their subject matter, the murals were an important piece of history from Indiana’s first hospital that Thompson knew he wanted to help save.

Several organizations had conducted campaigns to remove the most significant mural fragments in the past, including many that are now on display at Eskenazi Health. These artworks were featured in the 2004 publication “The Art of Healing: The Wishard Collection” and were also on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the 2009 exhibition “Preserving a Legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals.” Nevertheless, others remained.

Thompson said the original intent of the murals was to promote wellness and healing for patients, something that is still a significant design topic for successful health care facilities.

“Saving the murals for art’s sake had been done before,” he said. “But saving the art, coordinated by artists and assisted and supported by many others, and to recognize the intent of the healing significance is another.”

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In a slow and painstaking process, large canvases were loosened from the walls without further damaging the murals. Photo courtesy of Michael Ruzga

Because the former hospital buildings are slated for demolition, Thompson knew he had to act quickly.

He enlisted the help of Sherry Rouse, IU’s curator of campus art, to figure out where to start. Rouse eagerly accepted, and the pair hired conservator Mike Ruzga and his team at Fine Arts Conservation Inc.

Through careful work, Ruzga’s team was able to save four of the murals. They were wrapped around a large, cylindrical tube to protect them and will be taken from the building via crane before demolition starts this summer.

Although most of the murals are not visible, Ruzga was able to discern a few features in three of them. One features a nurse or mother accompanied by a baby or cherub, leading to speculation it might have been the work of John Wesley Hardrick, an artist who specialized in depicting religious scenes. The neighboring murals have images of boys playing a rope game and girls with bouquets.

To remove the paintings, Ruzga’s team used a painstaking process involving sliding a 20-inch metal spatula behind the murals to slowly remove them from the wall. The largest section took three days to remove, while another took four days.

“It was a miracle we got them off of the wall, and it will be a miracle when we raise the money to salvage them,” Rouse said. “It will be a feather in our cap to restore these images.”

Besides being an interesting slice of Indiana history, she said, the murals are special because a group of artists decided hospital patrons should have something beautiful to view while they stayed in Wishard.

Supported by the St. Margaret’s Guild women’s group, the collaborative artists group led by William Forsyth included Steele, Hardrick, Otto Starke, Clifton Wheeler, Wayman Adams, Simon Baus, Walter Hixon Isnogle, Carl Graf, Jay Connaway, William E. Scott, Emma B. King, Dorothy Morlan and Martinus Andersen.

It is believed to be one of the first projects in the United States that commissioned artists to paint for a hospital.

For now, most of the paintings will be kept in an art storage building in Bloomington until IU can find a method to conserve them. The most significant paintings of the group, four Steele murals representing the seasons, were previously conserved and are now prominently displayed in the main concourse at Eskenazi Health.

Eskenazi T.C. Steele murals

T.C. Steele murals of the four seasons were previously removed from Wishard Hospital and are now prominently displayed at Eskenazi Health. Photo courtesy of Eskenazi Health

 

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