Rediscovering vanished murals from the Empire State Building

The towering remnants of tropical decor from the young Empire State Building, which were thought to have disappeared decades ago, will be back on public display May 12 at the TEFAF Art Gallery booth at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. The Bernard Goldberg Gallery of Fine Art will present these works, two oval murals of dams drenched in rainbows of flowers and foliage, which German-born artist Wenold Reis painted in 1938 for the Longchamp Restaurant at the base of the Empire State Building. (It’s now a Starbucks.)

Art and architectural historian C. Ford Petros last month when he first saw the frescoes, which are about eight feet high, at New York’s Goldberg Gallery: “Oh, my lord.” Peatross, who had been searching for Reiss since the 1980s, had only seen photographs and drawings of Longchamps’ work, mostly black and white. “It’s a major discovery,” said the historian.

Renate Reis, widow of the son of Wenold Reis, your merchants, Whoever organizes and maintains the family’s vast archive considered the unsigned paintings to be authentic, based on archival photographs, drawings, and decades of familiarity with the artist’s work. “This is amazing,” she said upon seeing them at the Goldberg Gallery, adding that she assumed “everything was destroyed” when the Empire State space was rebuilt by the 1960s.

One girl with long oval hair encounters a rearing tiger, and the other seems unfazed by a yellow snake. They came from a group of eight that Reis accomplished in an underground dining area sometimes called the Salle Abstraite (“abstract room” in French). The whereabouts of the other six are not known. Reese gave them ambiguous titles: temptation, meditation, liberation, anticipation, animation, fascination, adoration, and delight. Bernard Goldberg, the founder of the exhibition, said that he believed that his painting with a snake was originally called Temptation, and the painting with a leopard was Animation. In ancient images, only one oval (the current location of which is a mystery) bears a designation: the meditation, with a girl perched on a leaf and dreamily gazing into space.

Reese (better known as VEE-nold Rice) settled in New York in 1913, at the age of 27, and worked at a frantic pace during his five-decade career. Renate Reiss said she and Petros asked each other, “When did that guy sleep?” His son Tjarek, an architect, told the Scholar in 1978, 25 years after Reese’s death, that he produced “photographs, candy boxes, lettering, interior designs, illustrations, advertisements, murals, and furniture design,” and also established art schools. His portrait sitters included Native Americans and leaders of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as notable relatives and friends such as artist Isamu Noguchi. (The family archives also include extensive documentation of the accomplishments of Weinolde’s wife, Henriette, an artist, designer, and writer; his longtime mistress, Erika Lohmann, a modern artist and dancer; his brother Hans, a sculptor; and Tetrack.)

Petros estimates that in mid-twentieth-century New York, more than 100,000 people were “dining, drinking, shopping, or entertaining” at places “designed or decorated” by Reese. For a dozen outposts of the Longchamps restaurant chain, Reiss has provided scenery that transports diners to the South Seas, 17th-century New Amsterdam, and futuristic rows of gilded skyscrapers. Some of the furniture survives from its interiors; At TEFAF, Goldberg, whose 25-year-old gallery specializes in American art and the decorative arts, will be introducing a pair of crenellated wooden chairs (priced at $120,000) from Reiss’ medieval-style grille room at the Manhattan Hotel. But few architectural elements of Reims have been preserved. His only major public art commissions still on display are mosaics with portraits of workers and historical figures, made in the 1930s for a railroad station in Cincinnati.

It’s unclear how the Empire State ovals (which Goldberg priced in the low seven figures for a pair) were initially salvaged from the Longchamps Building. In the 1960s, the rooms were adapted into a Mississippi River boat-themed restaurant inspired by the writings of Mark Twain. (A winding staircase Reiss designed for the restaurant endured until a few years ago, when the space was gutted to make room for a Starbucks.)

About three decades ago, the same two murals in the Salle Abstraite were sent up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York, without any attribution, under the generic description of “Large Oval Abstract Paintings.” They reappeared in 2020, titled “Big Art Deco Style” at New York’s Shopless Auctions (the leopard piece fetched $2,250 and the snake for $2,750).

A few months ago, Ken Sims, the 38-year-old director of The Goldberg Gallery, discovered the artwork for sale on, titled “Massive Paintings of Miniature Women.” He recognized them as the effects of Longchamps and asked his boss (who is 90 years old) for confirmation: “Is that what I think?” Goldberg replied, “No question, yes.” 1stdibs dealer in Buffalo, New York sold the two murals to Goldberg Gallery for a price in the mid-five figures. A recent assessment report by technical expert Betty Krolik called them “extremely important”.

In the past few years Reiss has been the subject of retrospectives at the Hirschl & Adler Gallery in New York and the New York Historical Society (with catalog from D Giles) as well as a collection of essays, “The Multicultural Modernism of Winold Reiss”. His work is scheduled to appear next year in group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Dwersky Museum at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “Things pop up that we didn’t know survived,” Renate Reis said surprisingly often.

Goldberg said he’s hopeful the six missing ovals will reappear—perhaps TEFAF’s display at the Armory, through May 16, will help someone locate another unsigned plaque hidden somewhere. When the Longchamps Room was dismantled, he said, “I cannot understand that everything has been thrown away.” How could it be, he wondered, as people moved through the wreckage, “No one has tasted? No one knows what is beautiful?”

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