After 85 years in the dark, DU mural revealed
After more than 80 years in the dark, Juliet and her Romeo have been returned to the light along with an assortment of other Shakespeare characters depicted in a mural long hidden on the University of Denver (DU) campus.
The story of the mural’s disappearance and restoration is almost as intriguing as the ancient tale of Shakespeare’s “star-cross’d lovers.”
Created by the early 20th century painter John Edward Thompson, the Shakespearean portrait gallery adorns the proscenium of the newly-named Reiman Theater.
The 169-seat facility sits inside Margery Reed Hall, home of the university’s Daniels College of Business.
It’s taken over four years, on and off, for DU Arts Collections Curator Dan Jacobs, a team of professional conservators, mural artist Tom Ward and a handful of DU students to uncover the mural from beneath several thick layers of black and purple paint.
“It was vandalism,” Jacobs says of the cover-up.
These words echo the words of Thompson when he learned that Walter Sinclair, the university’s newly appointed theater director, had ordered the mural painted over in early 1931.
Much-praised after its December 1929 unveiling in what was then known as the Little Theater, the mural remained in view for little more than a year.
Thompson, a highly respected Colorado artist who taught at DU for 16 years, had received $8,000 from the university to decorate the theater’s proscenium.
But it was not to last.
“Sinclair wanted a black-box look,” Jacobs says, referring to the dark walls that commonly enclose small, experimental theaters. “But he also didn’t like the old-fashioned mural. He felt that Shakespeare was out-of-date, and stated he would never direct any of his plays -- a promise he quickly broke, by the way.”
The theater’s director was so intent on darkening the space that his orders included a paint-over of the room’s walls, ceiling and even its windows.
As one might expect, Thompson was not amused.
Jacobs describes how a student who’d discovered Sinclair’s paint crew at work quickly reported what was happening to Thompson, who was having lunch at the time with Denver Art Museum former director Arnold Rönnebeck.
The two men rushed over to confront Sinclair, and the resulting argument nearly came to blows.
In a January 27, 1931 Denver Post article on the incident, Thompson did not mince his words about the destruction of the mural, which he considered one of his best works. “I know now why some men, otherwise law-abiding, sometimes commit murder,” he told the reporter.
Thompson wasn’t alone in feeling disgust.
A few members of the university’s board resigned in protest at the obliteration of the mural, and the Denver Civic Theater soon lost half its subscribers.
But just as quickly, it appears, the incident was all but forgotten.
Looking back at the incident through a contemporary lens, Jacobs views the conflict over the mural as a microcosm of the ongoing nationwide feud of that day: between traditionalists who sought to preserve representational art and modernists who wished to eradicate it.
After arriving at DU in 2007, Jacobs began uncovering references to the long-forgotten mural in publications about the university’s art department.
At that time, the Little Theater was in a state of disrepair. Though it had long been used for theater department rehearsals, no one seemed to know of the mural’s existence.
Since Jacobs assumed that Thompson’s work was irretrievably lost, his early plans and budgeting aimed at recreating a version of the original from scratch, utilizing vintage black-and-white photographs of the theater as a source.
But when Jacobs and his team discovered remnants of the original mural visible through a section of black paint that had been worn away, he launched a fundraising campaign to return the mural to how it looked in its glory days.
The campaign coincided with plans for a $9.2 million re-do of Margery Reed Hall, which Jacobs says helped him gain support for the project.
Work on restoring the mural began in April 2007 and continued sporadically during the summers of 2007 and 2009, with more than 50 percent of the project completed in 2012.
Along the way, budget short-falls and the complete shut-down of Reed Hall in 2013 during its renovation resulted in interruptions.
Among those contributing to the $150,000 cost of the mural’s restoration was Scott Reiman, a DU graduate and university trustee who heads the Denver-based private-investment company, Hexagon.
Reiman, who made news headlines last year when he was accused of illegal insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission, also gave a substantial sum for the renovation of Reed Hall.
After much debate, the DU board of trustees voted to keep Reiman on the board and retain his name over the new theater’s entrance as well as the Daniels College’s School of Finance.
Other individual donors to the theater’s restoration were honored with armrest plaques in the steeply-raked seating sections.
The process of returning the mural to life has involved patience and extreme attention to detail.
Jacobs estimates that it took two days of meticulous work to reveal a single square foot of Thompson’s painting using a combination of careful scraping and specialty solvents.
In addition, contractors had to fill and paint a doorway and large holes that had been cut in the proscenium during Sinclair’s tenure to match the original mural.
“We’re 99 percent there,” Jacobs says of the project. The curator hopes to secure enough funding to be able to restore Thompson’s stencils along the top of the theater’s side walls.
Currently, the Reiman Theater is mostly being used for class lectures. The building is not generally open to the public, though soon after the renovation of Reed Hall was completed, members of the public got their first look at the mural at a ribbon-cutting on April 8.
Daniels College assistant media director Julie Lucas reports that an online site will be launched this summer, announcing the availability of the space for use by community groups.
Discussions will soon begin with administrators of several DU performing arts programs, with the aim of one day offering public concerts on the Reiman stage.
Marc Shulgold is a freelance writer, teacher and lecturer. He was previously the longtime music and dance writer at the Rocky Mountain News.