For decades, the curving mural depicting a golden sun has greeted visitors to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Faded by the elements, its once-vibrant blue lost some lustre over the years. The gold-leaf paint had chipped away. Still, the image drew eyes upwards.
No one seemed to know who had painted the scene adorning the Coliseum’s main archway – or when.
Guides referred to it as a “mystery mural” – two golden Olympic torches flanking a flaming sun, its centre a depiction of the planet Earth and the 12 signs of the Zodiac – the story of its origins as shrouded by time as the artwork itself.
But after taking a tour of the historic stadium a few years ago, LA teenager Dean Gordon became engrossed with its history. Solving its mystery soon became his mission.
Two summers ago, at age 17, Gordon began his quest – poring over library books and searching archives for clues that would lead him to the artist. “I contacted every single person who might have an idea,” he said, “every archivist, historian or professor who might have some connection to the mural.”
After a series of dead ends, Gordon came across a Los Angeles Central Library notecard that read “H. Rosien Coliseum”. Further online digging produced nothing – until he came across a single tweet:
“Please don’t touch the mural inside the arch that my FIL Heinz Rosien painted prior to the Olympics!!”
The plea, posted in 2016, was from Mary Lou Rosien in response to the Coliseum’s announcement that parts of the stadium were being overhauled. The mural would be part of renovations by the University of Southern California.
Years before, during a broadcast of a Trojans football game, the camera had panned under the Coliseum’s archway and focused on the mural. Watching from his home in upstate New York, Rosien’s husband, Igor, was flooded with emotion. He and his father, Heinz Rosien, had worked on the mural together.
The Los Angeles Coliseum Commission tasked well-known artist Heinz with the job in 1969, in hopes of helping the city win a bid for the 1976 Olympics. The archway of the Coliseum proved to be a precarious canvas. The underside of the curved portico stood more than 21m off the ground.
To reach it, father and son scaled scaffolding without the aid of safety belts, which are commonplace now, and painted upside-down. “My dad was up there battling the elements,” said Igor.
A teenager at the time, Igor spent the summer, fall and winter of 1969 working on the mural with his father. Not long after the mural was completed, Igor entered USC as a student. On occasion, he said, he would visit the stadium and be filled with pride as onlookers gazed up at the work he produced with his dad.
LA didn’t win the Olympics bid in the ‘70s but a few years later, at the opening day of the 1984 Summer Games, Igor beamed as people took pictures of his father’s work inside the Coliseum. By then, Igor had moved across the country. His father died on Jan 1, 2007, at age 86.
The origins of the mural were all but lost – until Gordon started his detective work. The teen tracked Igor shortly after spotting his wife’s tweet. A search through the Los Angeles Times archives revealed only one reference to the mural’s painter: a 1982 letter to the editor from the man himself.
In reference to a photo published two years before the 1984 Olympics, Heinz identified himself as the creator. The end of Gordon’s search two years ago led to a series of long discussions about the mural, and the start of a friendship between Igor and Gordon.
When it came time this spring to restore the mural, Gordon’s discovery and resulting report on the mural proved helpful.
For the artists – Aneta Zebala, Suzanne Morris and Adam Romcio – who have been in the conservation business for decades, the Coliseum’s mural has been one of their most challenging projects, they said.
Before the mural’s restoration got underway, Gordon and Igor met outside the Coliseum. There, the artist presented the young detective with one of his dad’s paintings. And on a sunny day in June, Nick Rosien – Igor’s son and Heinz’s grandson – was in town to visit his Uncle Mick.
They made a trip to the Coliseum. The scaffolding had just come down from the archway. The Rosiens were the first to see the mural’s unofficial debut.
Fifty years after it was painted, the vibrant blue and gold had returned. On either side of the archway, the glittering signature of Heinz Rosien dared anyone to forget him again. – Tribune News Service/Los Angeles Times/Colleen Shalby