Tucked inside the stairwell of Wilkinsburg’s borough building, relics of the town’s history stand along the stairs between the borough offices, the police department and the library.
But age is taking its toll on the artifacts, an expansive mural from 1940 on one level and a set of 1890s-era flags on another level, and community groups have launched a fundraising effort to preserve the pieces.
Launched on community crowdfunding platform In Our Back Yard, the campaign called “Preserving Wilkinsburg’s Art-i-facts” seeks to raise $15,485 before a May 1 deadline, kicking off a three-year project that would involve experts in textile and painting restoration. The total cost for rehabilitation of the items is estimated at about $36,000, and the groups will apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant for additional funding.
The artifacts are “our culture … our identity,” said Jody Guy, founder of the Center for Civic Arts, which is working with the Wilkinsburg Historical Society and the borough on the preservation efforts.
They’re treasured pieces. The mural is valued at $30,000 to $50,000, and the flags are estimated at $90,000.
“If we don’t preserve our history, it disappears,” President of the Wilkinsburg Historical Society Anne Elise Morris said. “Once they’re gone, they’re out of everybody’s collective memory.”
The projects tie in with renovations at the borough building and the Wilkinsburg train station.
“Together these preservation efforts demonstrate an effort in Wilkinsburg to change public perception that Wilkinsburg’s identity is blighted, instead of bright,” the campaign’s IOBY description reads. “The Art-i-facts project will not only preserve and showcase Wilkinsburg’s history, but also showcase the contributions that Wilkinsburg has contributed to the greater good.”
An illustrated timeline of “The History of Wilkinsburg”
Harold Carpenter, an artist working on behalf of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the New Deal agency that employed millions for public works projects, painted the mural just after the borough building opened in 1940. The building opened its doors on Jan. 1, 1940 — a symbolic date meant to usher in a new decade after the Great Depression.
At that time, the WPA assigned Carpenter, a Wilkinsburg-born artist, to the borough, and thankfully, Morris said, he painted “The History of Wilkinsburg” inside where the mural would be safe from the weather.
Wilkinsburg was first settled in 1812 when it was rural country land, but it wasn’t actually incorporated until 1887. The mural chronicles the time from the early 1800s until 1930.
Moving from the bottom of the mural to the top, it depicts Wilkinsburg’s history as an illustrated timeline, from stagecoaches to the installation of a modern roadway called The Great Road (now Penn Avenue) to the introduction of industry.
It also depicts the town’s many churches. Within its 2.3-square miles, Wilkinsburg is home to 40 churches, earning it the nicknames The Holy City and The City of Churches.
But it’s covered in a layer of dust, its varnish has discolored and there are number of scratches on the surface, the groups said.
A gift from Civil War veterans
Down a flight of stairs, two flags hang in a wooden case. The flags were a gift from the Wilkinsburg Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a veterans association for men who served in the Union Army during the Civil War in the 1860s.
The last surviving member of the Wilkinsburg GAR chapter, a man named John Renton, donated the flag display to the now-demolished McNair School, and the flag case eventually made its way to the borough building.
Their current environment, including a glow of fluorescent lights 24/7, damaged the flags’ silk fabric, and they will split into two if left untreated. The groups recommend motion detection and museum level lighting.
“People died for that flag,” Morris said. “They haven’t been forgotten for 150 years. We need not forget them now.”
A golden Lincoln along the Lincoln Highway
Once those projects are complete, the groups will turn their focus to Wilkinsburg’s Lincoln statue, which was placed along the town’s portion of the celebrated Lincoln Highway in 1916 and has greeted visitors ever since.
Having a portion of the transcontinental Lincoln Highway in the community was a big deal at the time, and the statue was a way to show pride. Even kids donated pennies toward the $600 to $800 cost of the statue, which holds a copy of the Proclamation of Emancipation.
But it’s a hollow statue with a metal frame, Morris said, and it’s had a rough century. When it was buffed years ago, its exterior wore thin. Once, its feet broke off. Another time, it was stolen and buried. These days, it’s mottled, cracked, and corroded.
The statue simply wasn’t built to withstand a century outside, Morris said. Ideally, she added, the statue could be taken off its base, touched up and placed inside the borough building.