Conrad Albrizio’s 1963 mosaic mural has a permanent home in Baton Rouge, marking a happy ending to a story that could have concluded with a wrecking ball in Algiers.
But the New Orleans arts community wasn’t going to let that happen. Neither was the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which unveiled the 5-by-49-foot piece in the Capitol Park Museum’s conference room Monday afternoon.
“Conrad Albrizio never titled his piece, but we’ve named it ‘Health and Happiness,’ ” said Phil Boggan, assistant secretary for the Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.
Albrizio dedicated the mural to “the state’s efforts to provide evaluation and treatment for exceptional children.” He was living in Italy at the time of its creation, which took five months with the help of five artists.
The mural was shipped to New Orleans, where it was anchored on the side of the New Orleans Regional Mental Health Hospital in Algiers. The area eventually became derelict and the mural all but forgotten.
“It made up the front façade of the building, but the front couldn’t exactly be seen from the road,” Boggan said. “That might have saved it from vandals and graffiti.”
The mural also escaped storm damage when Hurricane Katrina blew through the city in 2005. But when the city decided to demolish the old hospital in 2008, the New Orleans Arts Council and other organizations contacted the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.
Albrizio’s work can be found throughout the state. He created two massive frescoes depicting industries in northern and southern Louisiana in the portico of the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in New Orleans, and most past and present LSU students are familiar with his frescoes on the first floor of Allen Hall.
His fresco “Symbols of Justice” can be found in the governor’s press room on the fourth floor of the State Capitol, and another is in the Capitol Annex Building.
Albrizio was born to Italian immigrant parents in 1894 in New York City. He came to New Orleans in 1920 on an architectural project, working on the Hibernia Bank building on Canal Street.
The Works Progress Administration commissioned Albrizio to create murals for the State Capitol in 1935. The press room mural is the only survivor of that project.
The artist was hired as an art instructor at LSU, where he worked until his retirement in 1954.
“He created nine or 10 mosaic murals, four of which are in Louisiana,” Boggan said. “Two of those mosaics are now in Baton Rouge.”
One of those murals, “Elements of Government,” is located on the 11th floor of the 19th Judicial District Court Building on North Boulevard. Albrizio created it in 1955 for the State Capitol, but it found a home in the State Supreme Court Building in New Orleans, which sustained extensive damage in Hurricane Katrina. The mural was moved to Baton Rouge after the storm.
The Lieutenant Governor’s Office oversaw the removal of “Health and Happiness,” created from thousands of small tiles and Italian marble, from the hospital building in 2009.
“They cut it away in 5-foot seams, with each panel weighing 600 pounds,” Boggan said. “It was nerve-wracking to watch. They used a forklift to put the panels on pallets, and Kevin Kelly stored them in his warehouse in Algiers free of charge.”
Kelly is a historical preservationist and owner of Houmas House. The panels were safe in his warehouse, but Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and his chief of staff, Cathy Berry, did not want the mural to stay in storage.
Dardenne said his office originally calculated a $300,000 price tag for the mural’s restoration. That number later was whittled down to some $200,000, part of which was raised by the Louisiana Society, Daughters of the American Revolution.
“We were looking for a project,” said Sue Simpson, the DAR’s state regent. “He told us about the mural, and we went around to all of the DAR chapters with a slide show. I designed a pin with our symbol, an iris, with Swarovski crystals, and we sold them for $50 apiece.”
The DAR raised some $42,000 in two years. It also received a grant of $10,000 from the national organization to put toward the project, and the Lieutenant Governor’s Office was able to secure monies from the state’s 1 Percent for Art Program, which dedicates 1 percent of the cost of every public construction project exceeding $2 million to fund public art for that building.
The mosaic was sent to the McKay-Lodge Conservation Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio, which specializes in mosaic restoration.
“There was some damage in the process of removing it,” conservator Robert Lodge said. “When you remove something from mortar and brick, it’s a brutal process. It took a year to restore.”
The mosaic was Lodge’s third Albrizio project, the first being a mosaic in Mobile, Alabama. Lodge also restored the piece in the 19th Judicial District Court building.
“I wasn’t familiar with Albrizio’s work before that,” Lodge said, “and I fell in love with it.”