Call it a story of lost Philadelphia art found - and, some would say, lost again.

In 1939, two renowned New York artists, Raphael and Moses Soyer, received federal commissions to paint murals for the Kingsessing branch post office under the heralded New Deal post office art program.

Their artwork - two 15-foot-long murals made up of three panels each - depicted iconic scenes of Philadelphia from both the Colonial period and the 20th century: Independence Hall, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the skyline from the Delaware River, and the Ben Franklin Bridge.

For decades, the murals decorated the lobby of the post office at 52d Street and Whitby Avenue, but they disappeared from public view years ago. Until recently, art historians believed they had vanished for good.

In fact, the murals were safe. They had been divided into six panels and hung in the hallways of the 15th-floor regional corporate offices of the U.S. Postal Service at 615 Chestnut St. But they were accessible only to postal employees and guests.

News of the murals' whereabouts came to light last month after an Inquirer article on an exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg that highlighted the legacy of New Deal post office art in the state.

Now, some historians are calling for the murals to be returned to public view. They say that by keeping the art behind locked doors, the Postal Service is acting contrary to the spirit of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era program to employ artists. Others say the Postal Service, which no longer receives government support, can do what it wants with the art.

"I'd like to see them put it in a public venue, which was the intention of the program from the beginning," said Curt Miner, curator of the New Deal post office art exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. "FDR, who brought art to America in the most public of places, would be turning in his grave knowing only bureaucrats could see it."

A Postal Service spokeswoman in Philadelphia, Cathy Yarosky, said the decision was made in the mid-1990s to use the panels to decorate the corporate offices on Chestnut Street.

Another postal spokesman in Philadelphia, Ray Daiutolo, said the Postal Service, now a fiscally independent establishment of the federal government, had tried to allow the "widest public access to its mural collection."

"We have sought to balance the needs of mural enthusiasts with our primary mission as well as address concerns about the safety and privacy of our employees, customers, and the mail," he said.

Mural artists Raphael and Moses Soyer were Russian-born twins and prominent Social Realists of the 1930s. The pictures are among 89 surviving examples of the New Deal post office art program across Pennsylvania.

The headline of Raphael Soyer's 1987 obituary in the New York Times called him the "dean of American social realist artists."

"He was very highly regarded and a fixture on the New York art scene," said Robert Fishko, director of Fishko Gallery, which represented the artist during the last 25 years of his life and now handles his estate. Fishko said Raphael Soyer's work depicting urban street scenes - as the murals do - had sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Kingsessing murals are an example of how the New Deal program brought artwork to neighborhood post offices, such as the one in Southwest Philadelphia.

Sometime before 1980 - or perhaps as late as 1991 - the murals were transferred from the Kingsessing post office to the postal branch at 615 Chestnut St. When that post office was renovated about 1995, the pictures were relegated to basement storage until being taken to the 15th-floor offices in the same building, Yarosky said.

Two years ago, the State Museum was taking the final photographs of murals for its exhibit "A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania's New Deal Post Office Murals."

But it ran headlong into Postal Service's copyright policy, which barred the museum from taking any more photographs unless it paid a use fee for each image and relinquished all rights to the images. The museum declined, citing costs and what it called the precedent of turning over rights to what it believed was art in the public domain.

When he learned of the Soyer murals' existence last month, museum curator Miner drove to Philadelphia hoping at least to view them. He got to the 15th-floor lobby but was met there by a lawyer who denied him access even to see the artwork. Postal spokesman Daiutolo said Miner was blocked because the museum had not complied with the earlier policy.

The issue has sparked debate about whether something created as public art should remain public art, even if its new owner is no longer a full government agency.

David Brownlee, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Postal Service, even as a quasi-governmental entity, might win the legal argument but should allow access in the interest of the public good.

"It has a responsibility to the public, like it has a responsibility to deliver the mail," he said.

Harvey Smith, a board member of the National New Deal Preservation Association, which supports preservation of art and other works of the New Deal era, said the issue of access to Postal Service art had troubled members of his group.

"On the one hand, the Postal Service has done a great job restoring art," Smith said. "Then we run into a situation where someone is trying to take pictures of the art and is denied, knowing that we the people paid for it."

Smith said there had been similar cases in which permission to photograph postal art was denied in California.

"It is an issue that will have to be dealt with, maybe in Congress or through executive order," he said.

Or maybe not, at least in the case of the Soyer murals.

Dallan Wordekemper, the Postal Service's federal preservation officer in Washington and conservator for the 1,000 works of art in its buildings, said last week that he would like to make the murals accessible.

"I would support moving them," said Wordekemper, who asserted he had learned about the murals' existence two weeks ago, "if we could come up with a location."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.