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  • David A.F. Sweet

Brush With Greatness: Library’s Murals of the Giants of Antiquity Are Restored

By David A. F. Sweet

As beautiful as murals can be, even indoors they begin to deteriorate (albeit at a glacial pace) once the final brushstroke is applied. The process accelerates if unforeseen factors occur -- especially if water leaks upon them.

That’s what faced Lake Forest Library seven years ago. Built in 1931 and dedicated to the late bibliophile Kersey Coates Reed, thanks to a donation from his widow and sister-in-law, cracks in its venerable dome allowed rain to mar the murals in the rotunda. Collectively named The Poets and Artists of Antiquity, paintings of Homer, Sappho, Aeschylus, Virgil, Cicero, Xenophon, Diogenes and Pythagoras all stretch high toward the ceiling.

Workers restore the nearly century-old murals (including Homer on the right) at Lake Forest Library.

With the dome finally fixed in 2023, work began on restoring the murals, which were finished in 1932. The project was completed in a few months for about $266,000, paid for thanks to a grant from the Friends of the Lake Forest Library. The restoration “promises to bring the murals as close to their original glory as they’ve ever been,” according to a library statement.

In mid-April, a packed house in the Kasian Room listened as library enthusiast Jan Gibson offered a chronicle of the murals, a biography of their creator, Russian émigré Nicolai Remisoff, and an explanation of which previously lost figures on the paintings had been rediscovered.

Gibson pointed out that letters show murals were planned from the beginning, as the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library, among other early buildings dedicated to books, featured them. It remained for those involved to find the right artist. The library board president, Alfred E. Hamill, commissioned Remisoff – even though he never had taken a drawing class.

“That’s amazing to me, but he had such talent,” Gibson said. “He was a creative perfectionist. He was a master of drawing faces and of strong colors. He loved designing.”

Before he landed in Chicago, in fact, Remisoff designed Elizabeth Arden’s beauty salon in New York, where he put murals on the wall and favored mirrored ceilings. He ended up working on Arden salons in Chicago and elsewhere.

“When asked what he did in documents, he said ‘freelancer,’ but he was much more than a freelancer,” said Gibson, who noted the artist designed magazine covers for Vogue and Vanity Fair and decorated State Street in Chicago for Thanksgiving Day parades. 

Remisoff eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he designed movie sets, such as Of Mice and Men, and locations for television shows, such as Gunsmoke.

“He loved the glamour of it,” said Gibson, noting that he served as a designer for 31 films and created more than 500 storyboards per movie.

Though each of the eight library murals featuring people are named after one person (there are also four smaller landscape murals that connect to the others), they are brimming with ancient characters, including Sophocles and Aristophanes. The restoration revealed others, including Remisoff himself in the panel of Virgil.

“A worker was cleaning it and said, ‘I know this face. I know this character,’” Gibson said.

At the top of the Homer panel, a man appeared during the restoration who has his hand up. It’s the man who hired Remisoff: Alfred E. Hamill. It was even discovered that an archer holding a bow behind the circulation desk is the likeness of Kersey Coates Reed. And there is a possibility that the two benefactors of the library – Helen Shedd Reed and her sister Laura Schweppe – have emerged on the top of the Pythagoras mural. Black-and-white photos of the duo will confirm or disprove that notion.

According to the library, the works in the rotunda are the last remaining Remisoff artwork available for public viewing in Chicagoland. Thanks to the restoration, generations of visitors can enjoy their beauty. Said Gibson, “They should last another hundred years.”

This story first appeared in Classic Chicago magazine


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