Bellevue Hospital Murals
Fresco on canvas, 78″ x 93″
by David Margolis, painted 1939-1941
David Margolis (1911-2003) was hired during the Great Depression by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) to paint a series of murals in Bellevue Hospital. Margolis was originally born in Volochysk, Ukraine. He was educated at the Odessa Academy for Fine Arts and the Ecole De Beaux Art in Montreal as well as the National Academy Art and the Arts Students League in New York City. He assisted Diego Rivera with installing Rivera’s murals in Rockefeller Center in 1933.
From 1937 to 1941, Margolis spent nights and weekends painting in the various pavilions of Bellevue Hospital. The paintings fronting this issue of BLR are part of a nine-panel mural series covering 900 square feet of curved walls of the Bellevue atrium. Margolis later told a New York Times reporter that he was “painting murals that told the story of human progress.”
By 1945, however, the atrium was abandoned, and the murals were lost. At various times, the atrium was used as a storeroom, a cafeteria, office space, and a used-clothing repository for homeless patients. Some murals were painted over. Others were covered by layers of kitchen grease or wallpaper.
In 1991, Bellevue underwent a major architectural redesign and the atrium was to become the main entranceway to the hospital (a significant upgrade from the two-door entrance crammed next to a concrete parking garage). Excavation of the rotunda revealed the murals, which the artist had—perhaps prophetically–coated with protective wax. The Municipal Art Society helped track down Margolis, who hadn’t seen the murals in half a century and never expected to see them again. The 80 year-old artist spent close to a year helping with the restoration along with Loretta Kielar. He touched up the murals that contained his parents, his childhood dog, a friend who’d fought in the Spanish civil war, an influential art curator, and the nurses and doctors who’d befriended him during the original painting sessions.
Bellevue Literary Review held its inaugural reading in the restored rotunda on October 7, 2001, surrounded by the stunning murals. Margolis, aged 90, was in attendance and received an ovation from the audience. He died two years later.
BLR is honored to celebrate its twentieth anniversary issue with two panels from these iconic murals. The panel on the front cover is “Construction; ” the panel on the back is “Research.” Margolis entitled the entire series, “Materials for Relaxation,” suggesting his hopes for art to offer balm in the midst of medical upheaval. During the Covid pandemic, the atrium became a central registration point for Covid testing. Thousands of New Yorkers experienced the embrace of Margolis’s panoramic art—even if subliminally—as they navigated the worst pandemic of the century.
Cover photo credits (and deepest gratitude) to NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue
Photo of David Margolis painting the murals taken by WPA photographer Sam Shalat, May 29, 1940