Paramus’ Forgotten Landmark

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Paramus’ Forgotten Landmark

A Journey into New Jersey

The intersection of Routes 4 and 17 in Paramus is considered a landmark. It lies in the midst of one of the largest shopping meccas in the country, a location said to generate over $5 billion in annual retail sales, more than any other zip code in the United States.

This economic powerhouse, though, is pretty non-descript. But it was not always that way.

Once upon a time the Garden State Plaza, then one of the early outdoor shopping centers, was well known for a giant Santa Claus that seasonably graced the top a parking lot light pole foundation. It greeted shoppers and passersby from its perch in the parking lot between Bamberger’s and Gimbels (now Macy’s and Nordstrom).

Not too long ago Paramus was also known for a giant outdoor mural, once found on the front of the old Alexander’s department store. In its time the mural by Polish artist Stefan Knapp was the largest of its kind in the world.

The story behind the mural and its artist are both interesting ones.

The artist, Stefan Knapp was born in 1921. After studying art, he was sent to a Gulag during World War II. After his release in 1942 (but after the murder of his father), Knapp went to England for training as an air force pilot. He was to remain in Britain after the war.

Knapp was known for producing murals of a size previously unheard of. He was also known for producing them with materials “meant to last for thousands of years”. He developed and patented a technique of painting with enamel paint on steel facilitating decorating public architectural structures.

He first received wide attention and acclaim during his exhibition in London in 1954 (Prior to finding fame he worked as a ski instructor in the Swiss Alps to make ends meet). There he presented a unique and innovative style and technique, which involved melting glass into pieces of light steel, using specially made furnaces.

In 1958, Knapp was commissioned to produce 17 murals for London's Heathrow Airport. This project in 1960 attracted the attention of George Farkas, the head of Alexander’s Corporation, who were expanding their chain of department stores in the New York area. An entrepreneur, Farkas saw the value of Knapp’s new techniques and wanted to make a big splash to establish Alexander’s image as more upscale then it’s off the rack city roots as it eyed expansion into the then growing suburbs.

Paramus was one such location.

Farkas and Knapp agreed on a mural that would be 200 feet long and 50 feet wide to adorn the facade of the new store being built there. The two especially liked the prospect of thousands passing it every day, bringing acclaim to its title of the largest mural in the history of the world, and to the store on which it was displayed.

Knapp worked out of an aircraft hangar near London in this ambitious project. He was photographed working on skis he had adapted to avoid damaging the panels and using enormous mop-sized brushes.

The project turned out to be a big deal. Newspapers all over the world reported the progress of this record-breaking mural.

When done, the mural amounted to 280 individual panels and weighed some 250 tons.

In all, the work was completed and installed within 18 months. George Farkas, more than happy with the result, commissioned three more murals.

Interestingly, however, complications arose. Farkas‘son, it seems, had already approached Salvador Dali regarding one of the stores, and both Dali and Knapp, it turned out, had signed contracts with different members of the family. Eventually after a famous breakfast meeting, Dali demanded his payment for the contract but had no means of producing work that could stay outside and proposed that Stefan enamel his design. Stefan refused to do anything but his own work on principle. Eventually, Dali had to be paid off and Stefan produced an enameled relief made up of spun steel domes on square based for Alexander’s New York store on 58th Street and Third.

As Frakas and Knapp had hoped, the Paramus mural became iconic.

Years later feelings for the landmark can be found:

I remember the Stefan Knapp mural at Alexander’s Department store as a wonderful break from the relentless commercial context of Route 4. It was one spot in an ocean of retail signs and mediocre buildings that allowed my imagination to wander, rather than be directed toward buying something. As a child, I responded to its pure color and sense of movement. I needed no other meaning or reference to fully enjoy the mural. Decades later I am an artist and former professor of art history, and still appreciate Knapp’s mural..The mural was there for everyone, shoppers and those just passing by..

Similarly, David Messer, director of the Bergen Museum of Art and Science in Paramus, years ago described the giant mural as “the single most important icon of culture in Bergen County.''

"A whole generation of shoppers used to drive by it," said David L. Ganz, a Bergen County freeholder and former mayor of Fair Lawn, once told a reporter from The New York Times. "It was certainly attractive." As a Freeholder, Ganz was one of those who passed a resolution supporting the mural's return to the public eye.

But mural was not universally loved.

For example, in 2008 when Mike Kelly of the Record wrote disparagingly of the mural he found many who agreed.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for calling the Alexander’s mural “UGLY”. I would call it a “MONSTROSITY...I was elated when the mural was removed. It was nothing more than sloppy spilled paint. http://njmg.typepad.com/freshjersey/2008/01/ugly-jersey-rea.html

Whether loved or hated, by the early 1990’s the mural was at jeopardy when Alexander’s closed.

Many suggestions for the mural were made, including a hope that the mural might land on the new IKEA store. It never happened.

Ultimately Mr. Messer of the Bergen Museum succeeded in saving the mural. Vornado Inc., an owner of the old building, donated the mural, plus $53,000 to pack its porcelain panels, to the museum. The mural was stored in a warehouse in Carlstadt

For a long time the mural was stuck in limbo – in a storage facility in Carlstadt. For a time, there were reports that the mural might find a new home at the also Xanadu entertainment and sports complex in the Meadowlands, a place itself notorious for its financial and aesthetic shortcomings.

But then in 2015, the mural (and at least a portion of it on display) has found a new home in Paterson at the Art Factory, an artists' studio space in Paterson. At that time, part of the mural was made public for the first time in nearly 20 years. But since then the Art Factory has had a series of disputes with local officials, so its future may be less clear.

These days, there is a generation that knows of the 4-17 intersection as site of IKEA. But to others, while not visible the spirit of Alexander’s and Stefan Knapp’s unique mural can still be felt – even if it sits in Paterson now.

Acknowledgement of source materials: Background information courtesy of Wikipedia, The New York Times and the North Jersey Media Group, and Glass-on-Medal.com

First posted on NJTV.com in 2012