558 Grand Concourse
limestone relief, 13' 4" x 8' 4" x 3'
US Treasury Department
Section of Painting and Sculpture
In the fall of 1938 Ben Shahn, assisted by his wife Bernarda Bryson Shahn, began work on the cartoons for a major cycle of thirteen egg tempera on plaster frescos for the Bronx General Post Office. The project was created under the US Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, a new deal art program which produced public works in federal buildings nationwide from 1934-1943. During that time, the Federal Post Office commissioned murals and sculptures for over 1,100 post offices. The Shahns' murals, collectively entitled Resources of America, illustrate the nobility of the American worker. The panels depict men and women throughout the country engaged in labor, from rural cotton and wheat fields to urban textile factories and steel mills. Hydroelectric dams and industrial blast furnaces complete the powerful imagery which symbolized 1930s America.
The Mural is inspired by the Walt Whitman poem "I Hear America Singing," the Shahns' work fills the entire ground floor lobby. Verses from the poem as well as Walt Whitman himself are shown with the poet speaking to a crowd of people. The lines, which appear as if written on chalk board, are quoted below. They were not, however, the lines Shahn had originally chosen for the mural. The original quotation was found to be controversial when the drawings were placed on view at the post office in December of 1938. It read "...to recast poems, churches, art (Recast maybe to discard them, end them) maybe their work is done - who knows..." was objected to and later vehemently denounced by a Jesuit professor at Fordham University. Shahn agreed to change the quotation to avoid drawing negative attention to the public arts programs and, some suggest, to avoid the possible destruction of his work, a fate suffered by Diego Rivera's Rockefeller Center murals. (Shahn and his wife met while he was assisting Rivera on the Rockefeller Center project.)
The lines from Whitman
used in the work are:
For we support all
After the rest is done
and gone we remain
There is no final
reliance but upon us
Democracy rests finally
(I my brethren begin it)
and our visions sweep
In front of the General Post Office are two limestone sculptures. At the left, facing the façade is Noahby Charles Rudy; at the right, The Letter by Henry Kreis. The awards, announced by the Treasury Department, were made unanimously by the judges Paul Manship, Edward McCartan and Maurice Sterne, sculptors, and Thomas Harlan Ellett, the architect of the Bronx Post Office.Noah, an unusual but appropriate symbol for a post office, is represented carrying a gazelle-type creature under his right arm. His head is turned toward the right as he gazes at the dove, symbol of peace, bearing the message that the flood had abated. The figure and its base are 13' 4" high, 8' 4" wide and 3' deep.
The Letter by Henry Kreis represents a mother and her child receiving a message. The mother in a strictly frontal pose reads the letter while the child, standing with 3/4 of her back toward the viewer, looks up at the woman. They stand firmly on an oval pedestal.