Postmaster’s office; several panels of Millet’s “Mail Delivery"
are visible in this photograph, c. 1911

Millet’s “Mail Delivery” Murals

At the World’s Columbian Exposition, Millet had firmly established himself as a decorative artist. In the years that followed his murals could be found in the Bank of Pittsburgh (1895), in the Governor’s Reception Room of the Minnesota State Capitol (1905) and, in what many consider to be his finest work as a muralist, the Call Room of the U.S. Customs House in Baltimore (1907). In Cleveland, thirteen of his murals already surrounded the banking room in the magnificent rotunda of the Cleveland Trust Company (1908) at Euclid Avenue and East Ninth Street, only a few blocks from the Federal Building.

For the Cleveland Federal Building, Brunner commissioned Millet to paint a series of 35 images on 23 canvas panels, which would constitute a panoramic frieze in the Postmaster’s office on the second floor – a 950 square foot corner suite which was described at the time as “the finest private office of its kind in Ohio.” Entitled “Mail Delivery,” six of the panels were located in an alcove, with the remainder adorning the walls above the rich walnut paneling in the Postmaster’s office itself. Millet also assisted Brunner by coordinating the painting for all interior plaster work, which had become the norm in Millet’s career as a decorative artist.

In designing the murals, Millet worked very closely with Brunner to create a composition to complement the room’s overall design. Each panel is framed by an elaborate border and reflects Millet’s renowned attention to detail. In the alcove, images surrounded by colorfully intertwined flowers were painted on 32-inch high panels. Those in the main office were presented on larger panels more than four feet high, surrounded by ornate scrollwork of deep blue and gold.

The murals themselves are a product of Millet’s life experience. Born in 1846 in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, Frank Millet was, among other things, a world traveler, a man of many interests and a talented artist widely respected by his peers. He was a drummer boy in the Civil War, a graduate of Harvard, a newspaper editor and a war correspondent for American and British publications during the Russo-Turkish and Spanish-American wars. He studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Antwerp, Belgium and, as a genre painter, established a reputation for his meticulous researching of costumes and historic details. During his later years, he spent much of his time abroad, becoming a true “citizen of the world,” as equally at home in London, Rome, or Vienna as in New York or Washington.

The murals’ subjects clearly reflect Millet’s personal observations and serve as historically accurate vignettes, documenting the wide-ranging means of mail collection and delivery found throughout the world. The panels include a weather-beaten mail coach from the American West, delivery by ski post in Sweden, a camel on Arabia’s burning sands, and a dog boat on the Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka. Three alcove panels depict rural delivery in France, Norway, and Belgium. Other countries represented include China, India, Angola, Japan, Canada, Iceland, and Germany.

The mural “Dog Sled Post, Alaska” demonstrates Millet’s ability to depict the peculiarity of each country’s method, costume and scenery. The five pair of Huskies tailing out on their long harness are just a few of the many animals splendidly represented in this series. Others include the bullock, camel, horse, donkey, and reindeer.

The images’ size vary considerably, with the larger panels devoted to some of the more interesting and picturesque methods of carrying the mail. One of the murals, entitled “Foreign Mail Transfer, New York Harbor,” depicts a four-stacked Royal Mail steamship in Cunard’s livery which, although not identified, is undoubtedly the Mauritania. A German four-stacker appears in silhouette in the distance.

Another, “Mail Transfer, Broadway, England” portrays the quaint English village of Broadway, a picturesque Cotswolds hamlet, where Millet maintained a home and was principal founder of an artists’ colony frequented by many American artists, including Edwin Austin Abbey, John Singer Sargent, and Edwin Blashfield.

“Dog Sled Post, Alaska” “Foreign Mail Transfer, New York Harbor” “Mail Transfer, Broadway, England”

Millet’s Most Private Public Work

Over the next four decades Millet’s “Mail Delivery” graced the large second floor corner office of Cleveland’s Federal Building. Ironically, though in a public building, they were always out of public view, seen only by those who had business in the office for which they’d been created. “Mail Delivery” quickly became – and remains – perhaps the least-known and appreciated of Millet’s many works.

The Federal Building on Cleveland’s Public Square was expected to serve as its main post office for decades, but the city was growing so quickly that soon an even larger facility was needed. In 1910, when the Federal Building opened, Cleveland was the nation’s “Sixth City;” by 1920 it had become its “Fifth.” Municipal leaders assumed that explosive growth would continue, so, in 1930, they included a new, larger post office in the massive Union Terminal complex – the most ambitious building project in the city’s history. The new postal facility was placed adjacent to rail lines, ideal for the mails’ efficient movement. The new Cleveland Post Office opened in 1934, complete with a new, modern office for the city’s postmaster. The elegant office in the Federal Building then passed to the Collector of Customs. “Mail Delivery” did not make the move, remaining where Frank Millet had installed them almost a quarter century before – still out of public view, but now out of context as well.

For 20 years they decorated the U.S. Customs Collector’s office. The aging panels at some point were “touched up;” scratches and other small areas of lost paint were covered with fresh oil paint, and some panels were coated with a layer of a resin meant to protect them. Undoubtedly well-intentioned, over time the new paint and resin only darkened and yellowed Millet’s original, vibrant colors.

A Casualty of Court Expansion

By 1955 the federal courts had filled virtually every bit of space in the Federal Building except that occupied by U.S. Customs. Needing ever more space for courtrooms, the corner office containing Millet’s “Mail Delivery” was eventually gobbled up as well. Those converting the office into a courtroom faced a dilemma: what to do with Millet’s 40-year-old murals? The paintings looked old and tired, but the work’s overall greatness must have convinced them that “Mail Delivery” was, indeed, worth saving. Rather than allowing their destruction when the office was gutted, project leaders decided to remove the murals before construction began.

But how to do it? Because each canvas panel had been glued directly to the plaster walls when installed in 1911, the murals were set firmly in place. The new courtroom’s project managers had to balance saving the murals against meeting hard deadlines. Speed prevailed: in the rush to complete the new courtroom, all 23 panels were simply peeled from the walls, severely damaging many in the process. Significant areas of paint were lost as the workers tugged on the canvases. Once removed, the murals were stacked in crates, sealed and stored away, moving from one federal facility to another, largely forgotten for the next 30 years.

Next: Restoring the Murals

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