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Treasure Hunt: Mural discovered behind HVAC at old Moorhead High School

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Rita Berg, Associate Paintings Conservator of the Midwest Art Conservation Center, cleans a section of a recovered mural from 1939 on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, in Moorhead. The mural, painted by Lucia Wiley, was donated to Moorhead High School, which has now been turned into an apartment complex. Erin Bormett / The Forum2 / 2

MOORHEAD, Minn.—Talk about a "find" in the old High School in downtown Moorhead.

For decades, many people knew about the beautiful mural near the Southeast entrance of, what is now, Townsite Center.

But until now, many did not realize there are two murals painted as part of the Work Progress Administration during Roosevelt's "New Deal" program, which employed millions in public works.

Standing beneath the newly discovered massive mural, Rita Berg is doing some inspecting.

"So I am doing a light surface cleaning, right now. Just to see how much grime is on the surface and what can be removed, look at that," Berg said.

Rita is from the non-profit group, Midwest Art Conservation Center in the Twin Cities, and is here to see what is the talk of the town.

This 1939 oil on canvas painting, featuring early pioneer life and Native American life in our region.

A painting that Lucia Wiley created for the Moorhead High school as part of the WPA program.

"The painting is made on canvas, a cotton canvas and pasted on to the wall. Lucky for us," Berg said.

Here is where the treasure hunt and big find gets interesting.

Somewhere, sometime during remodels and construction, this mural became hidden.

Stairways were cut and covered up.

And the piece was walled-in, furnaces, and HVAC surrounding it.

That's when Moorhead Orchestra teacher and school historian Brian Cole walked in and found it.

"Honestly, Kevin, it took my breath away, I think of the thousands of graduates who have seen this," Brian Cole, Moorhead teacher, and school historian said.

The goal now?

Get this piece cleaned up, even using ultraviolet light to discover imperfections.

An effort to carefully, and methodically remove the canvas form the wall and hopefully get this much-loved mural over to the students at Horizon in Moorhead.

"So the next 140-years of eyes can look at it, it would be a coup for our community," Cole said.

It is hoped grants and private donations will be used to clean up the mural, remove it and get it moved to Horizon.

There are two murals in the old Moorhead High School.

The other has been in a very public space near a stairway at Townsite Center's Southeast entrance.

It was painted by another artist, around the same time who was also part of the WPA project.

That mural, which also features some of the early life here in our region, will stay.

Kevin Wallevand

Kevin Wallevand has been a Reporter at WDAY-TV since 1983. He is a native of Vining, Minnesota in Otter Tail County. His series and documentary work have brought him to Africa, Vietnam, Haiti, Kosovo, South America, Mongolia and the Middle East. He is an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award recipient.

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