A mural Sendak painted in 1961 was removed - wall and all - after his friends, who were the apartment's longtime residents, had passed away. Now, it is being restored in a Philadelphia museum devoted to his work.
"What's nice is it's like a time machine," the 82-year-old Sendak told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his Connecticut home. "It captures a part of the past for a moment, and friends who were very dear to me."
Sendak painted the work on a bedroom wall of Lionel and Roslyn Chertoff's Upper West Side apartment, two years before he gained international acclaim for "Where the Wild Things Are" in 1963. Though that book's "wild rumpus"-loving monsters don't make an appearance, the mural features Sendak's beloved pet terrier and star of several books, Jennie, leading a parade of festively dressed children, a bear and a lion that the artist would revisit in books throughout his career.
It is believed to be the only surviving mural by Sendak, who created the 4-by-13-foot artwork as a gift to Nina and Larry Chertoff, then ages 4 and 6, on the wall of their 13th-floor bedroom.
"Those two kids were in that room when I was working on it, running in and out of the room, bumping around, laughing, screaming," Sendak recalled with a chuckle. "I had fun painting it, it was a great experience."
Fifty years later, the Chertoff siblings - whose names appear on the mural on a parasol held by a lion's tail - vividly recall it as a magical part of their childhood.
"The beds were below the mural and at night, as a kid you'd be going to sleep and you would fantasize that the array of kids and characters were all going to the park, they were going to go and have a great time," Larry Chertoff recalled. "It was almost like having imaginary friends who had been substantiated somehow, because they were there on the wall for us to see."
Sendak and his late partner, Eugene Glynn, were frequent guests at the Chertoffs' apartment. Glynn and Lionel Chertoff, both psychiatrists, became acquainted professionally in the 1950s and the couples quickly came to be close and lifelong friends.
After the deaths of their parents and the pending rental of the apartment where they grew up, the Chertoff children decided to donate the mural to the Rosenbach Museum & Library, located within two elegant 1860s townhouses in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. In 1967, Sendak himself chose the Rosenbach - once the home of rare book dealers Philip and A.S.W. Rosenbach - as the repository for 10,000 works of his art, books, manuscripts and ephemera that can be seen in rotating exhibitions and events year-round.
Upon finding where they wanted the mural to go, the next step was figuring out how to get it there. It took months of preparation before the entire mural wall was removed from the apartment in 2008 in what curator Judy Guston called a "brute force, but delicate, operation."
"It was bittersweet that it was the end of the era where it was, but its future is to be seen by children from all over the world," Nina Chertoff said. "Even the doormen were cheering as it came out of the building; they wanted their pictures taken in front of it . the whole thing was one of those rare moments in time where everything happened the right way, for the right reasons."
The 1,400-pound plaster-covered masonry wall had to be split into two pieces, to get it onto an elevator and out of the apartment building, then was loaded onto a truck to Philadelphia. Several years of evaluation, planning and construction later, it now rests in its permanent home inside the Rosenbach's first-floor gallery, where conservation work is under way to stabilize flaking paint and remove layers from housepainters who accidentally covered parts of the characters as they painted around them.
Equipped with a scalpel, cotton swabs and patience, conservator Cassie Myers works at the Rosenbach nearly every day to meet an April completion deadline. The museum has created public viewing hours on Wednesdays for the curious to see the restoration as it progresses.
"It's really satisfying to have it here and see the progress," Guston said. "We hope that when Maurice sees it, it'll be like seeing an old friend again. I think he'll be delighted."
The Chertoffs and Sendak said they hope to make the trip to Philadelphia when the restored mural is unveiled.
"We're so happy that it can be shared with everyone," Larry Chertoff said. "Our mom passed away, Eugene passed away, our dad is gone, but it felt like their spirits went with the mural and are wrapped up in it somehow. That's a beautiful feeling."