Places that Matter

Seward Park Housing Murals

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Seward Park Housing Mural by Hugo Gellert, photo by Elena Martinez
Seward Park Housing Mural by Hugo Gellert, photo by Elena Martinez
Seward Park Housing Mural by Hugo Gellert, photo by Elena Martinez
1939 murals depicting Franklin Roosevelt and Einstein, among others
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The four Hugo Gellert murals depicting Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein were commissioned in 1959 by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, when the Seward Park Housing co-op was originally constructed.  During the building’s history, the murals have been threatened a number of times, including in 1996 when the houses voted to become a private co-op.  The co-op board wanted to redecorate the lobby and a vote came up to keep or get rid of them—some thought they were racist, ugly, socialist, or past their time (New York Times, February 8th, 1998).  The current manager, Frank Durant, is adamant about preserving them.

The murals are significant as part of the progressive housing and labor movements in New York City, as well as the modernist/realist art of the 1930s-40s. Other murals by the artist Hugo Gellert in New York City have been destroyed. The murals are in need of a sensitive restoration in order to preserve them, as there has already been significant fading and damage (September, 2009, as of the PM Census).

Seward Park Cooperative apartments are comprised of four 20-story buildings, with three towers in each building.  Construction of Seward Park Cooperative began in 1959 under the sponsorship of the United Housing Foundation, a federation of cooperative housing societies, non-profit organizations and labor unions interested in promoting affordable housing. The cooperative was modeled after the successful completion in 1956 of the East River Housing Corporation, which was financed by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. There are two other union-sponsored cooperatives in the Grand Street area, including Hillman Houses built in 1950 and Amalgamated Dwellings completed in 1930. The four cooperatives were until recently collectively known as “Co-op Village.”

For over three decades, Seward Park Cooperative operated as a limited-equity cooperative that allowed the co-op to receive tax subsidies for keeping the price of apartments at below market rates. In 1995, shareholders passed a Plan of Reconstitution converting Seward Park into a full-equity cooperative. Over a five year period the price ceilings were gradually lifted until they were completely abolished. Apartments throughout Co-op Village now sell at market rates.  Seward Park Cooperative celebrated its 50th year in 2010. Many of the original shareholders and their families continue to live in the cooperative.

Seward Park Cooperative's history of affiliation with unions and a collectivist spirit is reflected in the distinctive murals in the lobbies of four buildings. The murals were painted by Hugo Gellert, a prominent artist of the 1930s who is known for both his art and left wing politics. Gellert created murals for the 1939 World's Fair, a theater in Rockefeller Center, a cafeteria near Union Square, and an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Having his work in the Seward Park lobbies is a tribute to the intellectual, cultural and political history of the Lower East Side.

Hugo Gellert was born in Hungary in 1892 and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1906. Gellert died in 1985. He was a very well-known artist in this country during the 1930s, yet he has essentially been forgotten. Today he is perhaps more infamous for his passionate commitment to left wing causes than for his contribution to American art, but Gellert strongly disavowed any distinction between the two. He professed that, for him, political action and art were synonymous. Gellert's activities contributed greatly to the political tone of 1930s American art. He occupied a seminal position in organizing the Artist's Committee for Action and the Artists' Union, two pivotal institutions which contributed to the instigation and perpetuation of the federally funded WPA art programs. He served on the editorial committee of Art Front, the Artists' Union's official publication.

The Seward Park murals are by no means the only work by Gellert to have caused controversy. He excelled at making trouble with his art. In 1932 Gellert captured headlines in New York through an incident involving a mural study that he was invited to submit to the Museum of Modern Art's Murals by Painters and Photographers exhibition. Gellert's painting, Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together (Collection of The Wolfsonian, Miami Beach, FL), along with Ben Shahn's famous The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY) and a painting by William Gropper, were rejected for the exhibition.  Gellert’s featured unflattering portraits of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (whose wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, founded the museum in 1929), J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford and President Herbert Hoover.

In Gellert's Seward Park mural cycle there are no Lenin portraits and no scathing caricatures of prominent members of society. Although Gellert did not make a secret of his politics, these particular murals do not have the subversive quality of some of his other work. They celebrate great Americans who are recognized as national heroes. In the Thomas Jefferson panel, the British redcoats lay down their swords in surrender. Words from the Declaration of Independence appear prominently. The Abraham Lincoln panel features portraits of John Brown and Frederick Douglass in addition to the slain President. Children of different races play together in harmony. Franklin Roosevelt's contributions and ideals are displayed in the Roosevelt panel.  Finally, Albert Einstein is the subject of the fourth panel. Not only does Einstein symbolize our scientific achievements, but as a refugee from Nazi Germany, the Einstein portrait represents the role the United States played in providing refuge from and fighting against the Nazi regime.