Found Frescoes by Quintanilla, 144-146 Bleecker Street

Mori's Restaurant, photographed on November 21, 1935, by Berenice Abbott.

On November 4, 1990, Christopher Gray published an article in the New York Times in which he reconstructs the history of this site on Bleecker Street, in an attempt to unravel the enigma of a remarkable episode in the history of Spain and Spaniards in New York.

Gray explains that the two row houses at 144 and 146 Bleecker Street were built in 1832, and were taken over, in 1883, by restaurateur, Placido Mori.  Mori’s was a famous restaurant in the early decades of the twentieth century, but closed its doors in 1937.  The building was apparently vacant between that date and 1944, when it was occupied by the “Free World House and a consortium of other organizations with names that suggest an anti-Fascist or pro-labor character.”   Between 1962 and August of 1990, 144-46 Bleecker Street was the address of the legendary Bleecker Street Cinema, at which many New Yorkers received their first introduction to avant-garde and foreign films.  Woody Allen, for example, was an assiduous spectator at the Bleecker Street Cinema.  By the time Gray published his article in November of 1990, 144-146 Bleecker had become a gay porno movie house.

The fresco panel "La huida" --"Flight" or "Escape"-- before restoration. Notice the "Exit" arrow painted right on the fresco, reminding us of the placement of these works of art in the theater, and their mistreatment.

Gray writes of a stunning discovery made while preparing his article:  “Running for some 25 feet along a fire exit corridor there are five framed, unsigned fresco panels five feet high. […]  They are now graffitied and scarred, illuminated by a 15-watt purple bulb and accessible only through the fire exit…The frescoes show a menacing mix of helmeted soldiers and distraught civilians, perhaps refugees.”

After some impressive detective work, and conversations with art historians, former tenants and owners of 144-146 Bleecker Street, Gray discovers that they mysterious frescoes are the work of the Spanish artist Luis Quintanilla, and that they had been commissioned by the Spanish Republic to be displayed in the Spanish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair.  Because of the fall of Spain’s Loyalist government, the frescoes never made it to the Fair Grounds at Flushing Meadows; they were exhibited in 1939 at a show sponsored by the Associated American Arts, but soon after, went missing.  Quintanilla himself affirmed that the panels had been lost.

Installation of the restored Quintanilla murals, University of Cantabria, Santander, Spain.

Gray concludes his 1990 article expressing the hope that the Spanish government might get involved in the recovery and restoration of these murals.  Fast forward two decades:  A 2010 Spanish documentary (Los otros Guernicas) and publication tell, with great detail, the happy ending of the story that had been cracked open twenty years earlier by Christopher Gray.  After years of negotiations with the owner of 144-146 Bleecker, the University of Cantabria (the region in northern Spain in which Quintanilla was born) managed to purchase and restore the frescoes, and these “other Guernicas” are now on display in the atrium of one of the main buildings of the university.

Site in 2011. Photo by Juan Salas.

Bleecker Street Cinema, courtesy NYU archives

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