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Landmark mural finds new home at Judson University

JudsUniversity hung 21-by-15 foot muralmade 1930's or 1940's thuse hang lobby ElgWatch Case Factory torn down last year.  November

Judson University hung a 21-by-15 foot mural,made in 1930's or 1940's, that use to hang in the lobby of the Elgin Watch Case Factory torn down last year. November 15, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:32PM

ELGIN — Elgin lost a big part of its industrial history when the Simpson Electric Co. complex along Dundee Avenue — the former Illinois Watch Case Co. plant, which dated to 1890 and for many years had been the city’s second-biggest employer — was torn down last year. But one of the most revered elements of that partly elegant and beautiful, partly ugly and old-fashioned structure has found a new home at Judson University.

About 50 people attended a reception at Judson Thursday to dedicate the 13-by-11-foot mural celebrating American home-front workers that had decorated the Simpson plant’s lobby since World War II.

The Lac Du Flambeau Chippewa Indian tribe, who own Simpson Electric as a tribal enterprise, recognized the artistic importance of the mural. So after they decided in spring 2011 to tear down the almost-vacant complex, they donated the artwork to Elgin Area Historical Society.

EAHS Director Liz Marston said the modernistic mural, done in oil paint on canvas, was created during World War II by Chicago artist John M. Cadel (1905-1977). The dies and metal-shaping machinery that before the war had made luxury watch cases and ladies’ compacts now were producing chemical mortar shells and nose units for fire bombs.

Divided into five panels, Cadel’s artwork shows one determined workman standing by as empty mortar shells slide down a trough. Other panels show another workman, pipes, gears meshing together and what seems to be an injection unit, possibly used to fill the shells with explosives and white phosphorus.

Marston said that after the Chippewas decided to tear down the plant, “they invited us to go through and said to take anything we want. We looked at that mural and saw that it was glued to the wall of the lobby like wallpaper. We didn’t think it would be possible to remove it. But (EAHS staffer) Lucy Elliott was able to carefully peel it away from the wall.

“Then we had to decide what to do with it.”

“We could have put it up at our (Old Main) museum, but it would have taken up a whole wall and we wanted it to be somewhere out in the public,” Marston said. “We hoped it could be displayed at Elgin Community College, but they couldn’t figure out a good place. One of our members knew (then-Judson President) Jerry Cain and asked whether Judson would like to take it, and Dr. Cain agreed.”

Judson officials decided to hang it in the wedge-shaped, multistory lobby of Judson’s almost-new Harm A. Weber Academic Center, which houses Judson’s School of Art, Design and Architecture. The historical society still owns the mural, but has signed an agreement to let Judson display it for three years, with the possibility of renewing that after three years unless a better plan has come along.

Assistant Judson Art Prof. Joseph Cory said that as Cain prepared to retire as president last spring, “he dropped the project on my desk and said, ‘Take care of this, Joe.’”

After being stored on a roller at Gemini Molding in Elgin for a year, the canvas was delivered to Judson in July, rolled out on a table and prepared for the removal of 70 years of dust, dirt and grime. Cory recruited 10 of his art students to do the cleaning.

“It was tedious,” Cory said. “The students put cleaning solvent on cotton balls and rubbed it carefully over the painting an inch at a time. As a result, the colors are now much more brilliant than they were when it was taken off the wall at Simpson.”

“When I told the kids we had this project, they didn’t seem very excited,” Cory said. “But once they got their hands dirty, they really got into it. This was a great opportunity to show them that there are possible careers out there, ways to make a living in the art field, besides just being a creative artist.”

Another Judson staffer designed a lattice-like wooden frame to hold the mural on its new wall.

EAHS President George Rowe said that in appearance, the mural resembles Works Progress Administration murals that the federal government paid artists to create during the Depression of the 1930s, as a way to inject more paychecks into the struggling economy. But the products shown — artillery shells — clearly show this one was done after the plant had converted to war work in the 1940s. “I saw that this was something we really had to try to conserve,” Rowe said.

Judson’s interim president, William Clark Crothers, said the project reminds him of his hometown of Flint, Mich., which once held thriving General Motors plants. “Flint lost a lot of those auto plants. But now kids can go to a museum there and see the history of the city’s industry. This is a way for us to help keep the memory of Elgin’s watch (industry) alive, too.”

Simpson Electric CEO Bill Conn was among the 50 guests at Thursday’s reception. He said his tribe is still working to redevelop the 7.5-acre former Simpson property, though its exact use has yet to be worked out in cooperation with city officials. One possibility is an assisted-living project, he said.

“We have had a good relationship with Elgin, but it was making no sense to keep the plant,” Conn said. “We had 28 people left there and we were paying half a million dollars a year in heating bills. When we decided to tear it down, we got lower bids but we decided to hire American Demolition because they’re an Elgin company. The demolition cost us $2 million, including $500,000 to get rid of asbestos alone.”

A smaller painting by Cadel, showing people wearing Renaissance clothing but surrounded by the case company’s “Elgin American” brand consumer products from the 1940s or 1950s, also was saved from the Simpson plant. That one was given to the City of Elgin and now hangs in Hemmens Cultural Center.

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