Town Officials take a second look at Town Hall murals
Published 4:23 pm, Thursday, May 11, 2017
DARIEN — A Revolutionary clash, Colonial women at work churning butter and laying out fish for drying, farmers, Native American bow hunters and villagers — these are the characters and scenes depicted on the walls of Town Hall.
The murals were painted in the 1930s, as part of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), according to Terry Gaffney, and Gaffney knows his subject. A member of Darien’s Monuments and Ceremonies Commission, Gaffney has been called the “resident murals expert” by First Selectman Jayme Stevenson.
“The commission feels these murals tell a significant historical story not only of the Town of Darien, but of the governmental support of artists during the era of The Great Depression,” Gaffney said.
Begun in 1933 by the Department of the Treasury in order to employ out-of-work artists, over the course of roughly six months, PWAP funded an estimated 700 mural projects, 7,000 easel works, 750 sculptures and 2,500 works of graphic art, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The total project cost $1.3 million in federal funds.
PWAP extended to Darien in part thanks to Virginia Drew, then the head of the Merrill Business School in Stamford and the Guild of Seven Arts, an active arts organization. Drew’s action in local art circles helped to secure commissions in both Darien and Stamford.
According to Gaffney, “Juliana Force, then director of the Whitney Museum in New York and regional director for the Federal Arts Project, came to Darien on Jan. 12, 1935, to formally dedicate the works. She is reported to have said, ‘The work in this community was the highest quality of the Public Works Art Project paintings done anywhere.’”
Perhaps the most eye-grabbing mural surrounds the Town Hall Auditorium stage and was painted by Arthur Gibson Hull in 1934.
The violent scene to the right of the stage depicts the Tory raid of the Middlesex Parish Meeting House in 1781, during the height of the Revolutionary War, when Moses Mather and many other of the parish’s men were taken prisoner. On a panel to the left of the stage, a woman named Sally Dibble stands defiantly before a British loyalist, a bayonet pointed at her chest, protecting a young boy.
At the opposite end of the auditorium, near the entryway, is a more pastoral scene of Native American village life. On one panel, bowmen return from a hunt with a deer carcass in tow. On another, they can be seen in action hunting waterfowl. In a third, Native American women tan a deer hide and churn butter.
The paintings, however, appear to mostly have gone untouched since their installation more than eight decades ago.
“While we have no record of any repair or ‘touching up’ done in years gone by, there is evidence of some restoration on several of the murals,” Gaffney said. “In the past, several murals have been destroyed, others had fallen into disrepair.”
One such mural, painted in 1934 in the southern interior hallway of Holmes School, had been painted over many times, before being chipped away at and restored by a janitor in 1996.
“This mural was painted over for years. When Holmes School was reopened, a janitor remembered the mural and painstakingly chipped the paint away. With no oversight, the possibility of a similar episode occurring in the future is all too real,” Gaffney said.
In this year’s budget talks, potential restoration of the murals was debated, though it was ultimately deferred. According to Stevenson, no action will be taken on the murals until after July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
“The Board of Selectmen voted to wait on any restoration efforts until we determined the value of the murals,” Stevenson said.