John Salhaus (in black), a senior paintings conservator at Parma Conservation, Peter Schoenmann (right), co-director, and Elizabeth Kendall, prepare the “Solidarity” mural for removal at the United Electrical Workers union hall in the Near West Side, where preservationists are applying tissue to protect the mural before it is removed from the building.

John Salhaus (in black), a senior paintings conservator at Parma Conservation, Peter Schoenmann (right), co-director, and Elizabeth Kendall, prepare the “Solidarity” mural for removal at the United Electrical Workers union hall in the Near West Side, where preservationists are applying tissue to protect the mural before it is removed from the building.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Historic union mural to be saved from wrecking ball on Near West Side

Created 50 years ago by artists John Pitman Weber and the late Jose Guerrero, the “Solidarity” mural is being removed from the walls of the United Electrical Workers hall as the building is redeveloped. The painting is expected to be restored and reinstalled at the group’s new offices later.

The historic “Solidarity” mural painted inside a Near West Side union hall by venerable Chicago artists John Pitman Weber and the late Jose Guerrero is, if not unique, incredibly unusual.

After all, it illustrates in graphic detail the struggles of working people, the power of organized labor and the ugliness of corporate America. Not a lot of artwork today embraces such themes, and in this manner — with images of a Klansman, menacing National Guard troops and a southern sheriff along with factory workers pushing back, literally, against oppressive forces.

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And it’s been there — winding up and along a staircase at the United Electrical Workers hall at 37 S. Ashland Ave. — since 1974, making it 50 years old and one of the oldest pieces of public (or semi-public) art in the Chicago area.

Crews prepare a historic mural at the United Electrical Workers union hall to be removed before the Near West Side building is redeveloped.

Crews prepare historic murals at the United Electrical Workers union hall to be removed before the Near West Side building is redeveloped.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Weber also noted that “it’s unique compositionally,” as it’s bending with the walls and adjusting for doorways and corners.

Yet, there was no certainty the mural was going to last.

Workers ready part of the Electrical Workers union hall's mural for removal.

Workers ready part of the Electrical Workers union hall’s mural for removal.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

The union announced last year it was selling the two-story building, which is destined to be ripped apart, expanded and redeveloped into residential units. The mural seemed doomed.

Weber says, “The idea of losing the whole thing was just terribly saddening.”

This part of the mural at the Electrical Workers union hall is being saved.

This part of the mural at the Electrical Workers union hall is being saved.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

But enough money has been raised, more than $150,000 and counting, to save the mural or, at least, a large portion of it.

Indeed, the process of prepping and removing the artwork from the walls by, in effect, tearing out heavy slabs of wood and plaster with the mural, has already begun and should continue into March.

Part of the John Pitman Weber and Jose Guerrero mural at 37 S. Ashland Ave.

Part of the John Pitman Weber and Jose Guerrero mural at 37 S. Ashland Ave.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

“It looks like they’re going to be able to save significant sections of it,” Weber says. “It’s very encouraging.”

“I think it’s going to take a while” before the painting is displayed again, he added. “They just have the funds to get this stuff out, to cut out the sections they think they’re going to be able to reinstall and have them stored properly.”

Donations have come from friends of the union, private foundations and an ongoing crowdfunding campaign, officials say. There will be a second round of fundraising for the restoration and installation.

Part of the mural at the United Electrical Workers union hall states, "If there is no struggle there is no progress."

Part of the mural at the United Electrical Workers union hall states, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

“Preparing them to have them re-hung is going to cost another couple hundred thousand, at least,” Weber says. “That might take anywhere from two years to four years is my guess because the place that does it is very busy and it’s slow, painstaking work.”

Late Chicago artist Jose Guerrero in 2008.

Late Chicago artist Jose Guerrero in 2008.

Sun-Times files

Chicago artist John Pitman Weber, shown recently at the union hall with the mural he did with the late Jose Guerrero 50 years ago.

Chicago artist John Pitman Weber, shown recently at the union hall with the mural he did with the late Jose Guerrero 50 years ago.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

The union is moving to another Near West Side building, at 1901 W. Carroll Ave., that’s occupied by the Chicago Teachers Union, and the artwork is expected to be displayed there at some point, says Carl Rosen of the Electrical Workers.

He says there will be a lot more eyes on the art at the new office because of all the foot traffic there, “which is great” because the painting tells an important story “of industrial unionism in this country and the way the labor movement was built to stand up on behalf of working people not just in the workplace but society as a whole.”

Chicago’s murals and mosaics sidebar

Chicago’s murals & mosaics


Part of a series on public art in the city and suburbs. Know of a mural or mosaic? Tell us where and send a photo to murals@suntimes.com. We might do a story on it.

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

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