For the past 21/2 months, five nights a week, Amber Schabdach, senior paintings conservator for the Conservation Center, wrapped small sticks in cotton, creating makeshift Q-tips. Then she climbed onto a hydraulic lift and rose 20 feet in the air. There she stood for eight hours every night, roughly 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., working her DIY swabs in tight, repetitive circles until the paintings before her were clear of dirt.
If you passed through the lobby of the Merchandise Mart during that time, perhaps you saw her: She was one of three women from the Chicago-based conservancy hovering near the ceiling, tasked with preserving the 17 murals celebrating global commerce that were installed when the building opened in 1930.
You know, those austere, honey-hued murals in the lobby of the Merchandise Mart.
Showing pyramids and pagodas and windmills and camels and sheep and elephants and fishing boats and fruit baskets and minarets and bales of wool and French vineyards and Russia and Venice and Mississippi.
The ones high up. Alongside the marble pillars. Augmented with gold leaf. Created by Jules Guerin, who worked on murals for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and Pennsylvania Station in New York City, and whose illustrations of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago are still ubiquitous a century later.
Don't feel bad.
Guerin is no longer anybody's idea of an art superstar, and his 17 murals for the Merchandise Mart are so generally uncelebrated that the panels were last cleaned in 1991. Not to mention the works are dimly lit, and until Schabdach and Co. tackled the job, 23 years of muck and dust had settled on top of a layer of varnish.
Still, working her swab over a murky-looking Mount Fuji, Stephanie Loria, a conservation technician, frowned and expressed amazement on a recent evening over how few of the people who walk through this lobby — or work in the Mart — seem to see these works. "We hear comments all night long up here. Like, 'Hey, what are you painting?'"
She held up a filthy swab.
"On the other hand, there is something weirdly satisfying about a disgusting Q-tip."
As she cleaned, her lift shimmied. The only sound was the whir of floor cleaners. Echoes bounced about. The lobby of the Merchandise Mart, designed by the influential firm Graham, Burnham & Co. (now Graham, Anderson, Probst & White), has all the intimacy of a Soviet warehouse, and its murals are so close to its tall ceiling that neck strains are a prerequisite for viewing. The conservation, which began in May, is part of an 18-month lobby restoration, said Myron Mauer, chief operating officer for the Mart. The cleaning, which cost less than $100,000, he said, is the first step; the next two involve a new coat of varnish and better lighting for the murals. But even now, a week after the women finished the cleaning, you can see the results taking shape: Chocolate Arabian skies have lightened. Once dimly etched pyramids now pop in mustard yellows.
But it had not been easy.
Watching the conservators, Mauer said, "The word 'tedious' comes to mind." And no one, of course, knew this better than the conservators: "It is a lot like watching paint dry," said Kendra Fuller, the third conservator. Schabdach said: "It's easy to ruin murals like this if you don't know what you're doing. You have to go over everything closely or you will literally strip the mural from the mural."
So they worked in tiny sections, cleaning a few feet a night, always aware that, as conservators and not restorers, their job is Sisyphean; they were not returning work to its original state but holding back the encroachment of time. There were spots on the murals where long-ago cleaning attempts left streaks. They could only sigh and move on, their cleaning motions so unvaried that their hands would tighten, fingers cramp, rotator cuffs seize.
It was lonesome work.
The ceiling smelled like dirty ashtrays. They listened to comedy podcasts to pass the time. Because the lobby is open 24 hours, groups of drunk people would wander through, shouting unintelligibly. The three kept their purses and backpacks beside them. The job, however quiet, was not danger-free, Schabdach figured. While she worked, she often thought about the fast-release button at the base of the lift that someone could slam into, shooting her to the floor. There were the sprinkler heads inches away that they were told not to bump, or jets of water would shoot out. After-hours, the lobby lights are timed to blink out, which would require one of the conservators to leave the ceiling every 90 minutes or so and turn the lights back on.
Schabdach, looking down at the marble floor, said she knew there were security guards down there somewhere; she just didn't think they were paying too much attention to a few conservators toiling quietly.
Down there somewhere, across the lobby, sat Alex Banks, overnight security guard. He glanced up at the women in their perches, then returned his eyes to the video monitors before him. He has worked here nine years, he said, and for nine years it's mostly tourists who notice those murals and ask about the history. "I was thinking: Maybe those women up there, they'll get people who work here to notice too. I think they are bringing life back to this whole floor. It's amazing what three people and some Q-tips can do."