At the beginning of 2011, a group of residents led by Howard Garfinkel, along with the endorsement of the Bratenahl Historical Society, proposed that the community restore and preserve a unique part of the Bratenahl School history through private fundraising to save the two murals that hung in the combined auditorium/gymnasium for over 70 years.
The murals were commissioned by the Cleveland Federal Arts Project in the Works Progress Administration era around 1940. Local artist Joseph Haber was living proof that art flourishes in adversity. Although severely crippled by polio since infancy, he nevertheless became an accomplished draftsman and painter. He graduated from East Technical High School and attended the Cleveland Institute of Art and the John Huntington Polytechnic Institute.
Able to stand only with the support of crutches, Haber attached brushes to bamboo poles to extend his reach when working on larger canvases. While aspiring to be included in the Cleveland Museum of Art's annual May Shows, the young Haber produced brightly painted wooden fairytale figures for the Higbee Department Store Christmas window displays.
During the Depression, Haber was involved in the Ohio WPA Art Program and became the "new ideas man" for his experiments with new media and for his progressive social thought. Haber proposed that plastic might be used to make art, and that power tools could be used to shape and texture it. Miss Sara Blair, superintendent of Bratenahl School, was intrigued in 1940 when Haber suggested that a mural for the combined auditorium/gymnasium could be made from the new medium of Catalin plastic and gave him the commission.
The result was a pair of relief panels, one depicting Studies, the other Athletics, representing the joint development of mind and body that is the goal of education. The murals represented unique relics of a remarkable era in American history. The panels were made of Catalin plastic mounted on pressed wood. Both measured approximately 50” x 68”.
Catalin is a brand name for a thermosetting polymer developed and trademarked in 1927 by the American Catalin Corporation. It was referred to as “The Gem of Plastics.” It was always expensive, and items made of it were relatively few in number, compared with molded plastics.
Catalin unlike other types of phenolic resins did not contain fillers, such as sawdust or carbon black. It was transparent, near colorless, rather than opaque. Unlike other phenolics, it could be produced in bright colors or even marbled making Catalin more popular than other types of Bakelite for consumer products.
The murals, when new, were described as having "soft contrasting colors" which during more than 70 years of exposure underwent a chemical conversion that turned the surface various shades of brown. Also, Catalin plastic shrinks as it ages, causing mural pieces to warp, crack and detach.
The murals needed professional care if they were to be preserved for future generations to appreciate. Over 50 donors contributed the $13,000 for the objects conservation staff of the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA) to conserve and preserve the cultural heritage represented by the murals.
The two murals were removed from the gymnasium and taken to the ICA for treatment and conservation. Silicone rubber molds were made to copy the different textures Haber had used. Using tracings, the epoxy cast was cut with a jeweler’s saw to match missing pieces. Thin Masonite backing boards were used to hang the murals in their new location for all to enjoy in the Community Center's main hallway.