JOURNEYS 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 of a parking lot light pole foundation. It greeted shoppers and passersby from its perch in the parking lot between Bamberger’s and Gimbel’s (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.