For unique mural, a ‘wild’ trip from New York apartment to Rosenbach

In 1961, 6-year-old Larry Chertoff and 4-year-old Nina Chertoff shared a bedroom in a New York City apartment, with a window overlooking Central Park. A friend of their parents, Maurice Sendak, came to paint a mural over their beds.

Sendak had not yet created his timeless Where the Wild Things Are. At the time he was a published but still little-known children’s author. On that bedroom wall he painted a line of playful children and animals parading toward the window, toward the park.

“I always knew it was really special,” said Larry Chertoff, now 56. “It was a support almost, having imaginary friends yet they were there. When I was drifting off to sleep, they would be there. It was a rich feeling, and a very supporting feeling.”

Eventually, siblings Larry and Nina grew old enough that they each needed a room of their own. That means somebody had to leave mural behind.

“I was moved out of the Sendak room and into another room,” said Nina. “Which I’m still annoyed about.”

Her older brother shrugged. “I got the room, and that’s what happens.”

Fifty years after the mural was painted, brother and sister–still New Yorkers, both with children of their own–were in Philadelphia for the unveiling of the restored mural. Sendak has painted the characters directly onto the wall of their bedroom, so removing the work meant sawing the entire wall out of the apartment.

At 20 feet long and ten inches thick, the wall weighs 1,400 pounds. Fortunately, an faulty bit of conduit pipe inside the wall had caused a crack in the middle, enabling conservators to remove the wall in two pieces.

“Thus making it more manageable, lighter,” said John Carr, of Milner+Carr conservators of Philadelphia. “And, more importantly, to be able to get it into the elevator cab.”

“That was one of the miracles of the project,” said Andrew Fearon, a conservator who did a lot of the heavy lifting. “We utilized every dimension of the elevator. We talked about riding it on top of the elevator. Luckily, we had exactly one inch of clearance in the old Otis elevator of that apartment building.”

The mural was restored in Philadelphia (correcting some childhood scuffs created by Magic Markers and rubber balls) and is now on permanent display at the Rosenbach Library and Museum, the official repository of Maurice Sendak’s works.

The Sendak room at the museum is painted in warm, yellow tones, reminiscent of a child’s bedroom. Larry Chertoff said he lived initmately with those painted characters above his bed, even as a teenager.

“There’s a time when you think, ‘Am I outgrowing this?’ I toyed with that,” said Chertoff. “My father had his office there. He was a psychiatrist. Actually his office was not there as I was growing up–it was my bedroom–but he began to practice there and turned out it was OK. It really felt right, even though it was for children. My friends liked it when we were 17.”

Larry and his sister Nina were confronted with what to do with the mural in 2006, when their mother died (their father passed away several years earlier). After 50 years, the rented apartment would have new tenants. The Chertoff’s asked the building owner, the Rosenbach Museum, and Maurice Sendak if the mural could be removed and conserved at a cost of $200,000.

“Everyone did the right thing,” said Nina Chertoff. “So many things could have gone wrong, and nothing went wrong. It was amazing–if the world could function that way, we could all be at peace.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.