The theme of the New Year’s service at Second Presbyterian Church was a call to parishioners for renewal in their lives. Entitled “A New Heaven and a New Earth”, it could have been about the historical church itself.

1936 S. The church at Michigan Avenue — both a Chicago Landmark and a National Historic Landmark — recently featured a mural considered a treasure among lovers of both art and history.

The church was designed by the architect James Renwick and dates from 1874; The sanctuary dates to 1901 as it was rebuilt after being destroyed by fire the year before. At the time, the Prairie District neighborhood was home to Chicago’s leading industrialists and businessmen such as the Fields, Kimballs, Pullmans, Armors and Swifts, who expected nothing less than the best.

The renovated sanctuary met their expectations with a building modeled after English Gothic churches of the early 15th century and built with rusticated Illinois limestone. The façade had a gable wall with buttresses and pinnacles, relieved by Gothic-arched windows, horizontal bands and four large sculptural medallions symbolizing the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

As impressive as the building is, it’s what’s inside that makes it truly special.

The church features seven large Tiffany stained glass windows and a 40-by-30-foot “Tree of Life” mural above the altar by renowned painter Frederick Clay Bartlett.

“This is one of Chicago’s most amazing Arts and Crafts interiors,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

After more than 100 years, with the window sills and mural hidden by dirt, prominent supporters of the church launched a campaign to restore the artistic treasures to their original glory.

Two Tiffany windows were cleaned in October and there are plans to finish the rest next year, according to Linda Miller, president of the Friends of the Historic Second Church, a group dedicated to restoring the Second Presbyterian church.

The biggest project was restoring the “Tree of Life” mural, which wrapped in mid-December. Conservators spent 10 weeks meticulously cleaning the mural, removing layers of grime and repainting it to show it in its original splendor. Linda Miller said the project cost approximately $500,000 and was financed by donations and the $256,364 Save America Treasure grant received in 2021.

The mural was restored by Chicago-based Parma Preservation, run by the husband-wife team of Peter Schoenman and Elizabeth Kendall.

Parma, who has restored Depression-era murals in Chicago public schools and post offices across the country, said restoring the Tree of Life mural was a challenge because of its age and fragility.

“It had over a century of dirty air on it, and we also found that when we started cleaning there was repainting and a heavy amber, varnish layer,” Schoenmann said. “So, all of that was removed so that the original 1903 layer could be obtained.”

This project was more difficult than it sounds.

It took three weeks to set up the scaffolding. To enable patrons to reach the mural it needed to be raised 65 feet high. And it had to contend with light fixtures, wooden arches and metal organ screens.

Then, Schoenmann and Kendall had to figure out which solvents would safely remove those that weren’t the original.

Miller said that seeing the Parma team reminded him of stories from the Sistine Chapel. “It was painstaking work that reminded me of Michelangelo, working millimeter by millimeter.”

Schoenman said that there were several “Christmas morning moments”.

“Discovering what lies beneath all these layers of filth and darkness is like opening a gift because you are revealing a prize. It was one of the most satisfying wow factors because between what it was and what it became The change was so dramatic,” he said.

Among the surprises were uncovering Italian gold leaf, discovering that the sky in the mural was blue, not green as it appeared, and discovering vibrant yellow lemons on the trees.

“In our line of work, you never really know what you’re going to uncover or reveal, so you have to move very slowly and carefully until you understand all the layers that are there “

Schoenmann said it was surprising to see how alive the mural was in 1903. “It looks like it was painted yesterday.”

Kendall described the result as “wonderful” after viewing the mural for the first time on Friday after the scaffolding was removed.

“You can see the lemons on the trees,” he said. “Wow.”

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



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