Fire-Damaged Omaha Mural Ready to Return Home

Conservator Deborah Uhl works on a fire-damaged mural at the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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November 21, 2017 - 6:45am

A 65-year-old mural damaged in a fire at the Sons of Italy Hall in Omaha earlier this year will look a lot better when it’s returned to its home in 2018. The painting has gotten some much-needed care from an art restoration expert and will once again be the centerpiece of the building when renovations are complete.

Our story starts on 10th street in the Little Italy neighborhood of Omaha, outside the Sons of Italy Hall. The building, a former carriage house, has been a big part of the neighborhood for a long time and earlier this year was damaged by fire. Inside the hall was a 22-foot wide, 4-foot tall mural of the Italian countryside. The painting was heavily damaged in the fire, but not destroyed. The Sons of Italy decided they wanted to save a piece of their history. So they took it down the hill to the nearby Durham Museum for repairs. 

Fire-damaged Sons of Italy building in Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“It was just brown,” said Deborah Uhl, a professional conservator who has also done other work at the Durham Museum. “The whole thing was like a burnt sienna, kind of a reddish brown, but very dark and you actually couldn’t see what it was.”   

Uhl, who was raised in Omaha but now lives in New Mexico, specializes in fixing damaged artwork, even things like painted rocks and old theater curtains. In this case, the oil painting is on canvas and mounted on boards. It was painted in 1952 and is a panoramic view of the Sicilian village of Carlentini, in the shadow of Mt. Etna.  

“It was just painted with a lot of care and there are a lot of details, like the branches of the trees and every single sheep is painted and in the windows of the buildings you see figures looking out the window,” Uhl said. “So there was nothing that was ignored when they were trying to depict the character of this place.”

Conservator Deborah Uhl. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

The mural hung behind the salad bar at Caniglia’s restaurant until the place was torn down in 2005. That’s when it was moved a few blocks to the Sons of Italy building, where it was until the fire in January. Now, in a classroom in the basement of the Durham Museum, Uhl carefully fixes tears and rips in the canvas and matches color, texture and sheen.

“I’m going to try to paint the least amount that I possibly can to kind of pull it back together because I want to retain that historic quality and not paint it so bright that you forget what it is and how old it is,” she said.  

Uhl uses spackling and a small putty knife to fill in gaps, a tedious job that takes a good eye and a lot patience.

“You keep looking and looking and looking and working on it until there’s no damage or problem area that draws your attention,” she said. “You really want to be able to look at the scene without thinking what happened to it. You want to be able to just enjoy what it is.”

RIch Mengler with Omaha's Sons of Italy. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

And what it is to people like Rich Mengler is a connection to the past. He calls himself an IBM, Italian By Marriage. He’s led the restoration project for the Sons of Italy and believes it’s important to preserve things like this for the next generation.

“You’ve got to have anchors. You’ve got to have something to talk to your children about,” Mengler said. “Rather than sitting there playing a game on their computer with them, you can talk to them about some of the way it used to be. That’s what the whole thing does, it gives you something concrete that you can show them and you can say, when they come in, you can show the kids, this is part of your history.”  

The mural will be displayed at the Durham Museum until the building restoration project is complete, likely sometime next summer. After that, the painting will return to its home, a bit of Omaha history back in a familiar place after several moves, a major fire and a facelift that should keep it around for generations to come.



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