Behind the Grover Cleveland mural restoration
by Michael Perlman
Aug 15, 2018 | 5111 views | 0 0 comments | 131 131 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alfred Kaskel & Philip Birnbaum hold a building award. (Photo; Daniel Kaskel)
Alfred Kaskel & Philip Birnbaum hold a building award. (Photo; Daniel Kaskel)
Fine art restoration specialist Jack Kupersmith in his studio. (Photo: Shana Schnur Photography)
Fine art restoration specialist Jack Kupersmith in his studio. (Photo: Shana Schnur Photography)
James Seeman in New York World-Telegram & Sun in 1963.
James Seeman in New York World-Telegram & Sun in 1963.
In an age when architectural and artistic beauty is often replaced with the mundane, one co-op board in Forest Hills undertook a unique effort to restore a classic mural in its lobby.

Coming home to The Grover Cleveland at 67-38 108th Street offers a lesson in American history. Amid the wood paneling, marble, and window seats is a mural that reads “October 28, 1886 Statue of Liberty - Dedication By Grover Cleveland.” The work is rife with American flags, families in period attire, and saluting sailors in rowboats.

“Nine years ago when I saw the lobby and the mural, I knew I wanted to live here,” said Michael Buscemi. “I love how the mural shows the president for whom the building was named after, and it is a nice panorama of old New York. Every city has new buildings, but the historic ones give our city its strength and individuality.”

This Colonial-meets-Art Moderne building was designed in 1949 by an award-winning duo, architect Philip Birnbaum and developer Alfred Kaskel, president of Carol Management.

It is part of a series of “presidential buildings” that line 108th Street and Yellowstone Boulevard. It is nearly a twin of the adjacent George Washington Apartments, which also once featured a mural of its namesake that is rumored to be concealed.

“The board felt our mural was part of The Grover Cleveland’s history, so when we redid the lobby, we made the mural the focal point,” said board president Leslie Siegel. “Even the decorators were impressed with the restoration.”

For years the mural was neglected and vandalized, so six years ago the board appointed the firm of Jack Kupersmith Fine Art Restoration to tackle the project. “He removed the areas that were damaged with markers, such as Lady Liberty’s eyes, took off years of dust and dirt, and filled in missing areas,” explained Siegel.

Restoring The Grover Cleveland’s mural was a two-week project.

“Preservation of the mural is important from a historical and artistic point of view,” said Kupersmith. “It makes me feel proud that I was able to bring it back to its original state,”

Kupersmith shared some details of the restoration.

“The mural had to be cleaned, filings had to be made where details were missing, and then caulked down and isolated.” he said. “At that point, I was able to in-paint and match the colors and details of the mural. Once the in-painting dried, I was able to varnish it with a medium shine finish.”

He also recalled how cleaning the mural was an act of precision.

“I couldn’t use any harsh cleaners, but only very soft ones, since I did not want the painting to be skinned,” Kupersmith said.

Efficient apartment layouts, thoughtful artwork, and carefully landscaped areas are among the design features that Birnbaum is remembered for.

“My father's vision yielded a truly exemplar design that would yield elegance to posterity,” said artist and producer Dara Birnbaum. “My father was very close to muralist James Seeman, whose expertise was in painting large scale landscapes and scenic murals.”

Seeman immigrated to America from Vienna in 1938, fleeing the Nazis. Once here, he continued to study art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Seeman's widow, Mina Seeman, was also impressed by the mural's restoration.

“As a very young child he sat by the window and painted,” she said. “He was first inspired by what he saw: a landscape, flowers, old interesting houses with age and charm. He said he would paint in his mind at night and jump out of bed, run into his studio, and begin to paint what was in his mind.”

Seeman started with oils and progressed to watercolors. Mina recalled his paintings as analogous to how a poet writes.

“He was a master in color,” she said. “They were subtle and clear. He loved painting skies and oceans, which showed his talent in color and movement.”
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