The centerpiece mural of the Schurz High School library, titled “The Spirit of Chicago,” was completed more than 80 years ago by artist Gustave Brand, who oversaw a number of paintings in the building that were touched up in 2020.

The centerpiece mural of the Schurz High School library, titled “The Spirit of Chicago,” was completed more than 80 years ago by artist Gustave Brand, who oversaw a number of paintings in the building that were touched up in 2020.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Take a look at Schurz High School’s historic murals, restored after leaks, damage

Painted more than 80 years ago, the paintings on the ceiling and walls of the Northwest Side school’s library showcase, among other things, the ‘spirit’ of Chicago.

SHARE Take a look at Schurz High School’s historic murals, restored after leaks, damage
SHARE Take a look at Schurz High School’s historic murals, restored after leaks, damage

The domed library inside Schurz High School on North Milwaukee Avenue has been described as the “Sistine Chapel” of the Northwest Side campus because of the historic murals painted there more than 80 years ago.

Murals

Chicago’s murals & mosaics


Part of a series on public art. More murals added every week.

They’re still there, now restored.

What’s considered the masterpiece of the space, titled “The Spirit of Chicago,” illustrates some of Chicago’s history.

Other murals on the arched walls celebrate the history of the written word.

Portraits of important figures — from Homer in ancient Greece to Ludwig Van Beethoven to Michelangelo, who painted the ceiling of the actual Sistine Chapel in the 1500s — dot the walls.

In 2020, the artwork underwent a “touch-up,” school officials say, to restore parts damaged by moisture or age — helping to ensure that the paintings remain in good shape for future generations of students.

“It does give a context to learning,” Lori Kunc, the school’s library and instructional technology coordinator, says of the art. “In this technological world — with the history of the written word — it reminds you how far we’ve come.”

Part of “The Spirit of Chicago” mural on the domed ceiling of Schurz High School’s library.

Part of “The Spirit of Chicago” mural on the domed ceiling of Schurz High School’s library.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

The late German artist Gustave Brand led the original project, though a number of Schurz students back then helped, particularly with the portraits, according to a history produced by the school in the 1940s.

A 1940 letter to Brand from then-Chicago schools Supt. William H. Johnson praised the artist for letting the students “learn your techniques.

“They are fortunate indeed, for they will share the benefits of your talents not only in the decorations of their library but also in the knowledge of art they will have acquired while observing you at work.”

A more expansive view of the ceiling paintings at Schurz High School on the Northwest Side.

An expansive view of the ceiling paintings at Schurz High School on the Northwest Side.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Brand later said of his Schurz project, “It is the finest thing I have done in all my 78 years.”

“The Spirit of Chicago” includes painted snapshots of the development of the city — from the arrival of European settlers into the modern manufacturing era.

“The Development of the Written Word” mural on the ceiling of Schurz High School’s library, as seen in 2000 following a restoration.

“The Development of the Written Word” mural on the ceiling of Schurz High School’s library, as seen in 2000 following a restoration.

Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Another mural, titled “The Development of the Written Word” was “told in four parts consisting of: The Stone Age, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Byzantine religion and the Gutenberg Press,” according to a Schurz brochure titled “Library Murals,” from 1949.

Water, apparently from a leaky roof, damaged some of the artwork, leaving salt deposits, according to Peter Schoenmann, co-director and painting conservator of Parma Conservation, Ltd., the Chicago company that did the 2020 restoration — which was part of a larger improvement project and followed another restoration to the art around 2000.

Some of the artwork was flaking and starting to peel away from the wall, Schoenmann says.

A damaged Schurz High School mural, shown with salt deposits prior to the 2020 restoration.

A damaged Schurz High School mural, shown with salt deposits prior to the 2020 restoration.

Parma Conservation, Ltd.

His company cleaned, fixed and, where necessary, touched up the paintings.

With the fixes, “If everything stays dry, we don’t expect to be called back in our lifetimes,” Schoenmann says.

Like other public art from that era, the Schurz artwork is certainly not all politically correct by today’s standards, particularly regarding Native Americans.

Anthony Rodriguez, Schurz’s principal, says he’s “working with the CPS Equity Office and seeking their support in facilitating a school communityconversation on how best to address this.”

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

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