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Norris Dam's hidden historic mural restored

A massive hidden historic mural was uncovered at Norris Dam in 2016 and has now been painstakingly restored.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) opened a surprise gift in 2016 as it prepared to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Norris Dam. When a wooden wall was removed at the lobby of the dam's powerhouse, crews found themselves staring at a historic hidden mural painted in the 1950s.

The mural painted by renowned artist Robert Birdwell spanned the entire wall and told the story of TVA's impact on the region. The surface was peeling and there were dozens of holes from the bolts that held the wooden wall in place, but the artwork was able to be restored.

The 2018 restored mural in the lobby of the powerhouse of Norris Dam, hidden behind a wall for decades until it was uncovered in 2016.

"It was pretty amazing to see the condition of it when the boards came down and what it looks like now," said Michael Rugza, chief conservator of the restoration project. "There was considerable damage, but it was much better to have been covered with a wall instead of painted over."

Robert Birdwell's widow, Ann Birdwell, was able to find a photograph of the original mural in the 1950s. The picture allowed restoration crews to accurately replace any missing gaps.

The damaged mural when it was uncovered at Norris Dam in June 2016.

"It's unbelievable," said Ann Birdwell as she saw the finished product Tuesday afternoon. "I was here when they started working earlier this summer and the whole room was covered in scaffolding. I never imagined they would restore it like they have."

While the painting is massive, its beauty is in the miniscule details. Portions of the mural include the tiniest of paint strokes.

"We had to pay attention to Robert Birdwell's technique, like the [United States] flag has every single stripe and it's about a centimeter big," said Rugza.

Michael Ruzga points to the minute details painted by Robert Birdwell, including a centimeter-sized U.S. flag with every stripe.

"I just love the story the whole mural tells," said Pat Ezzell, TVA historian. "If you ask what my favorite thing is, there's a farmer and a tractor. If you look closely, there are some little bitty cows. The detail is amazing and that's my favorite thing on the mural."

"I like the trees in the forest," said Ann Birdwell. "The colors are so typical of that period of time. He [Robert] would be absolutely thrilled that people took an interest in this work and cared enough to restore something he did. The history of TVA which is something he was trying to tell. I think it's important that we can maintain these things."

Ann Birdwell, widow of artist Robert Birdwell, marvels at the restored mural her late-husband painted at Norris Dam in the 1950s.

The powerhouse of Norris Dam is not usually open to the public. Ezzell said she is still working on different ideas for the best way to allow people to view the artwork.

For decades, the lobby area of the powerhouse was frequently visited by tourists and school groups. Public access to the area stopped due to changes security policies after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Artist Robert Birdwell painting a mural in the 1950s.

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