“History of Ships” by Gustaf Dalstrom, painted in 1936, depicts the history of shipbuilding from the days of sail to early modern steamships.

“History of Ships” by Gustaf Dalstrom, painted in 1936, depicts the history of shipbuilding from the days of sail to early modern steamships.

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New Deal-era mural about ships finds a new life at a Bridgeport museum

Commissioned in 1936, the ‘History of Ships’ mural had a tumultuous past before finding a new home at the Chicago Maritime Museum.

SHARE New Deal-era mural about ships finds a new life at a Bridgeport museum
SHARE New Deal-era mural about ships finds a new life at a Bridgeport museum

A tall-masted schooner, a paddle boat and other antique ships — all sail along a painted river in an 85-year-old mural that’s found new life at the Chicago Maritime Museum at 1200 W. 35th St. in Bridgeport.

Chicago’s murals and mosaics sidebar

Chicago’s murals & mosaics

Part of a series on public art in the city and suburbs. More murals are added every week.

The 20-foot-long “History of Ships” mural tells of shipbuilding from the early sailing days to steamships. The five ships it shows are painstakingly detailed and flanked on either side by figures in historic period clothing against a background of rolling hills in the distance.

Little is known about the mural’s history, according to Dylan Hoffmann, the Chicago Maritime Museum’s curator. Most of what’s known is from two pages in “A Guide to Chicago’s Murals,” a 2001 book about the city’s public art.

Commissioned in 1936 for Lawson Elementary School in North Lawndale, it was one of several murals done by artist Gustaf Dalstrom for the federal Works Progress Administration, the New Deal agency. Among other things, the WPA put artists to work producing a wide array of art.

The 20-foot-long mural “History of Ships” being installed at the Chicago Maritime Museum, 1200 W. 35th St. Commissioned in 1936, the 85-year-old mural was donated to the museum last November.

The 20-foot-long mural “History of Ships” being installed at the Chicago Maritime Museum, 1200 W. 35th St. Commissioned in 1936, the 85-year-old mural was donated to the museum last November.

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The mural hung in the halls at Lawson until the school was shut down along with 31 other schools in 1981. It was demolished the next year.

The mural survived. Exactly how isn’t clear, but it eventually turned up in an office at The Rookery building downtown.

UBS Art Collection, which is part of the financial firm UBS, bought the mural and owned it until donating it to the Chicago Maritime Museum, where it was installed in November.

Dalstrom was born in Sweden in 1893, came to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century and graduated from Lane Technical High School and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A fixture on Chicago’s art scene, he died in 1971.

Some of Dalstrom’s most famous works date to his time painting for the WPA, and many of his works can still be found in schools and post offices across the city and state.

The mural is one of a number of artworks the museum has that depict ships and Chicago’s maritime history, according to Hoffmann, the curator — “to tell the story of the waterways and evolution of [Chicago] and the evolution of the history of ships.”

The museum — closed because of the coronavirus pandemic and construction — also has a collection of canoes and a short-barreled cannon called the Lyle Gun that was used more than 100 years ago to launch rope to moor ships and to rescue sailors who’d fallen overboard.

Click on the map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals

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