Vanished Murals From the Empire State Building Rediscovered
Towering remnants of tropical décor from the young Empire State Building, which were believed to have vanished decades ago, will return to public view on May 12 in a TEFAF art fair booth at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts gallery will offer these works, two oval murals of damsels engulfed in rainbows of blossoms and foliage, which the German-born artist Winold Reiss painted in 1938 for a Longchamps restaurant at the Empire State Building’s base. (It’s now a Starbucks.)
“Oh, my lord,” the art and architectural historian C. Ford Peatross said last month when he first saw the murals, nearly eight feet tall, at the Goldberg gallery in New York. Peatross, who has been researching Reiss since the 1980s, had previously seen only photos and sketches of the Longchamps works, mostly in black and white. “It’s a major find,” the historian said.
Renate Reiss, the widow of Winold Reiss’s son, Tjark,who organizes and preserves the family’s voluminous archives, has deemed the unsigned paintings authentic, based on archival photos and sketches and decades of familiarity with the artist’s work. “This is amazing,” she said upon seeing them at the Goldberg gallery, adding that she had assumed “everything had been destroyed” when the Empire State space was redone by the 1960s.
One of the ovals’ long-tressed damsels is encountering a rearing leopard, and the other seems unfazed by a yellow serpent. They come from a set of eight that Reiss executed for a subterranean dining area sometimes called the Salle Abstraite (“abstract room,” in French). The whereabouts of the other six are unknown. Reiss gave them enigmatic titles: Temptation, Contemplation, Liberation, Anticipation, Animation, Fascination, Adoration, and Exultation. Bernard Goldberg, founder of the gallery, said he believes that his panel with a snake was originally called Temptation, and the one with a leopard was Animation. In vintage photos, only one oval (current whereabouts a mystery) bears a label: Contemplation, with a damsel perched on a leaf and gazing dreamily into space.
Reiss (pronounced VEE-nold Rice) settled in New York in 1913, at age 27, and worked at a feverish pace during his five-decade career. Renate Reiss said that she and Peatross have asked each other, “when did that man sleep?” He produced “portraits, candy boxes, lettering, interiors, illustrating, advertising, murals, furniture design” and also set up art schools, his son, Tjark, an architect, told a researcher in 1978, 25 years after Reiss’s death. Among his portrait sitters were Native Americans and Harlem Renaissance leaders like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as relatives and friends as prominent as the artist Isamu Noguchi. (The family archives also include extensive documentation of the accomplishments of Winold’s wife, Henriette, an artist, designer and writer; his longtime mistress, Erika Lohmann, an artist and modern dancer; his brother Hans, a sculptor; and Tjark.)
Peatross estimates that in mid-20th-century New York, more than 100,000 people daily “dined, drank, shopped, or were entertained” in spaces that Reiss had “designed or embellished.” For a dozen outposts of the Longchamps restaurant chain, Reiss provided scenery that transported diners to the South Seas, 17th-century New Amsterdam and futuristic rows of gilded skyscrapers. Some furniture survives from his interiors; at TEFAF, Goldberg, whose 25-year-old gallery specializes in American art and decorative arts, will offer a pair of serrated wooden chairs (priced at $120,000) from Reiss’s medieval-theme grille room at a Manhattan hotel. But few of Reiss’s architectural elements have been preserved. His only major public art commissions still on view are mosaics with tableaus of laborers and historical figures, made in the 1930s for a rail terminal in Cincinnati.
It is unclear how the Empire State ovals (which Goldberg has priced in the low seven figures for the pair) were initially rescued from the building’s Longchamps. In the 1960s, the rooms were adapted into a Mississippi riverboat themed restaurant inspired by Mark Twain’s writings. (A snaking staircase that Reiss designed for the restaurant endured until a few years ago, when the space was gutted to make way for a Starbucks.)
About three decades ago, the two same Salle Abstraite murals were consigned for auction at Sotheby’s in New York, without any attribution, under the generic description “Large Oval Abstract Paintings.” They reappeared in 2020, labeled “Large Art Deco Manner” at the Showplace auction house in New York (the leopard piece brought $2,250 and the snake sold for $2,750).
A few months ago, Ken Sims, the Goldberg gallery’s 38-year-old director, spotted the artworks for sale on 1stdibs.com, labeled “Monumental Art Deco Paintings of Stylized Women.” He recognized them as Longchamps relics and asked his boss (who is 90) for confirmation: “Is this what I think?” Goldberg replied, “No question, yes.” A 1stdibs dealer in Buffalo, N.Y., sold the two murals to the Goldberg gallery for a price in the mid five figures. A recent appraisal report by the art expert Betty Krulik calls them “immensely important.”
In the last few years, Reiss has been the subject of retrospectives at the Hirschl & Adler gallery in New York and the New-York Historical Society (with a catalog from D Giles) as well as an essay collection, “The Multicultural Modernism of Winold Reiss.” His work is scheduled to appear next year in group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz. Renate Reiss said that surprisingly often, “Things show up that we didn’t know survived.”
Goldberg said he hopes that the six missing ovals will resurface — perhaps the TEFAF display at the Armory, through May 16, will help someone identify another unsigned panel tucked away somewhere. When the Longchamps room was dismantled, he said, “I just can’t understand that everything got thrown out.” How could it be, he has wondered, that as people maneuvered through the wreckage, “nobody had taste? Nobody knew what was beautiful?”