THREATENED: Monumental Mystery Remains Unsolved. What Happened to the Massive Art Deco Ceiling Mural that Vanished from the Chicago Daily News Building in 1993?

“Gathering the News,” “Printing the News,” and “Transporting the News”, Murals by John Warner Norton, at the Chicago Daily News Building / Riverside Plaza from 1928. Photo credit: Ryerson and Burnham Archive

“The piece in question is the monumental mural about the gathering, printing and delivery of the news that once adorned the vaulted ceiling of the concourse in the old Chicago Daily News Building at 400 W. Madison St. Its crisscrossing geometric forms perfectly captured the energy of Chicago’s Front Page newspaper era in the Roaring ’20s.

“For 64 years, following the completion of the Daily News Building in 1929, the 180-foot-long by 18-foot-wide canvas delighted discerning commuters who craned their necks to see it as they passed through the concourse on the way into and out of the Chicago & Northwestern railway station.

“Then, in the fall of 1993, after a panel of the mural had come loose because of a leaky roof, the entire canvas was stripped off the ceiling and taken to a Milwaukee-area company, Conrad Schmitt Studios Inc., that restores the interiors of historic buildings. Several art restorers and conservators objected, saying the Schmitt firm lacked experience in renovating historic murals and that the mural should have been kept in place because removal typically causes additional damage.

“But Sam Zell, who controls a partnership that owns the old Daily News Building (now known as Two North Riverside Plaza), defended the move. ‘We hired [the Schmitt firm] to restore it, and we want them to put it back up into the building,’ he told Tribune reporter William Mullen. ‘We think it’s a treasure and a very valuable part of the building.’

“Here’s what happened (or, more accurately, what hasn’t happened ) since then: The Milwaukee-area firm never restored the mural, reportedly because Zell’s firm considered its bid too high. The artwork sits in a Near Northwest Side art storage warehouse. It’s been nearly 11 years since the mural was removed. [written in 2004]

“‘It’s still being discussed. It hasn’t been forgotten,’ says Terry Holt, a spokeswoman for Equity Office Properties, which manages Two North Riverside Plaza and has its offices in the building.

“Five years ago, an Equity spokesperson mouthed almost exactly the same spiel to Jeff Huebner of the Chicago Reader: ‘No plans have been made at this point . . . The mural has not been forgotten.’

“Designed by a master of mural art, Chicago artist John Warner Norton, the mural has been hailed, for good reason, as Chicago’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

“The design broke decisively with static classical murals, which relied on allegorical figures and beaux-arts imagery. Instead, it served up the same sort of machine-age dynamism that inspired streamlined trains and the zigzag motifs of Art Deco office buildings: A panoply of typewriters, telegraph machines and airplanes arranged on a field of criss-crossing diagonals.

“These diagonals, which suggested airplane beacons knifing through the sky, lined up perfectly with the pilasters, or flattened columns, along the walls of the concourse. Like banner headlines, big blocks of type spelled out the three sections of the mural: “Gathering the News,” “Printing the News” and “Transporting the News.”

“The result was an extraordinary integration of art and architecture, a grand gateway into Chicago.

“It’s not just the intrusion of everyday things into the cathedral-like space, like ear-piercing whine of mixing machines from one of the food and drink emporiums that line the concourse, but what has been done to the space itself from the addition of faux-art deco sign banners to the subtraction of the mural. Now there’s only a plain white barrel vault — sickeningly neutral.

“Without the mural, the concourse looks jarringly incomplete, like a baseball player without a cap or the Chrysler Building without its crown. The narrow, tall-ceilinged space retains a hint of its old grandeur, but, basically, it has all the grace of a carnival midway.

“Obviously, the mural should go back where it was. But what kind of shape is it in? And how much would it cost to restore it?” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 8/15/04)

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