Austin Answered: The mystery of the murals in the medical tower

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017 Local
Murals for the Medical Park Tower by Rafael Navarro. Contributed

A reader asks of our Austin Answered project: What’s the story behind the murals in the lobby of the Medical Park Tower next to the Seton Medical Center on West 38th Street?

The swooshing, busy murals are thick with scientific and humanistic imagery, some of it borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

We knew exactly where to turn for the provenance: Carl McQueary, historian and archivist for Ascension Texas, which runs Seton’s hospitals and clinics in the Austin area.

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It took a little time, but McQueary turned up a long explanatory document, “Rafael Navarro: Murals for Medical Park Tower,” written in 1967 by Thomas M. Cranfill, then a professor of English at the University of Texas.

“On the afternoon and evening of Aug. 25, 1967, a brilliant company gathered in the ancient Teatro Arbeu in Mexico City to see for the first and last time in Mexico the two murals Rafael Navarro has executed for Medical Park Tower in Austin,” Cranfill writes. “The murals, oil on canvas, each 9 feet tall and 29 feet long, are soon to be divested of their stretcher sticks, rolled up, and sent to Austin.”

Navarro, born in Michoacan of Tarascan background, studied at the San Carlos Academy of Art, also with Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and Armando Valdes, in Mexico City, then he went to Paris for further study. He worked in traditional genres, including portraits, landscapes and still-life drawings and paintings.

Navarro painted the Austin murals on the roomy stage of Teatro Arbeu. Cranfill’s paper goes into extensive detail about the artist’s cosmology. Cranfill does not, however, reveal how they were commissioned for the modernist Austin building. He reports that Navarro planned to exhibit some of his smaller works at Laguna Gloria, now part of the Contemporary Austin.

The murals were restored by artist Navarro in 1984 and again by conservator Mark van Gelder in 2006 and 2007.