Government largesse for the arts wasn’t included in President Barack Obama’s stimulus package this year.
But back in the 1930s, Darien was the beneficiary of $46,943.11 that the federal government awarded for civic improvement projects, including the painting of murals for public buildings. The projects were funded through the Works Progress Administration and comprise one of the largest and most important collections of Depression-era art in America today.
In Darien, two-dozen colorful and fanciful murals were painted, and they remain intact, lining the walls of the Town Hall (then high school) with a storybook of sorts.
Enter the building and look to the right. A piece titled The Kings Highway in Colonial Days from Stamford to Norwalk, continues on the left as The Kings Highway Main Overland Route Between Boston and New York in the Eighteenth Century.
The deep pastel shows a highway that is sparsely occupied; where it is in use, it is pedestrian-friendly. Ladies in long dresses greet gentlemen in short pants. A laborer carries a heavy sack on his back, perhaps grain prepared at Gorham’s Mill. Hunters pursue deer. One imagines the only sounds are of the whistling winds filling the sails of vessels that dot the harbors and the calls of birds and other wildlife.
A step up to the auditorium entranceway, one encounters the whimsical The Shoreline of Darien mural, a pictorial map painted by Robert Pallesen, a Darien artist who worked in a barn near where the first meetinghouse stood on Old Kings Highway.
The Shoreline of Darien conjures a Colonial-era Darien, when wildlife was abundant and houses were few and far between, connected by narrow dirt trails.
It is an aerial view of a largely wild and natural place, with open spaces in pasture. Farmhouses with their barns and outbuildings appear widely separated and as nearly self-sufficient compounds.
Ominously, the mural also depicts Tories and British soldiers arriving onshore by stealth to raid the Congregational Church.
Enter the auditorium to see dramatic murals to either side of the stage depicting the 1781 raid. To the left is a rendering of the shocking historical event when Darien’s original meetinghouse was under attack by Loyalists during a Sunday service.
"During the attack upon the Middlesex Meeting-House, Sally Dibble Defies the Royalists in Defense of a Young Boy," the legend reads.
Its companion to the right is a continuation of the scene with the legend:
"Sunday July 22nd, 1781, Capture of the Rev. Moses Mather & His Flock by Tory Raiders from Lloyd’s Neck, LI."
The two murals convey how relations between the Colonials and the British—and their sympathizers—could become brutish as war waged on. Rev. Mather and 50 members of his congregation were captured during the siege and imprisoned in New York.
Arthur Gibson Hull painted the sides and rear wall of the auditorium. Hull, a Norwalk artist, created a series of eight murals, each depicting a different aspect of Colonial life, from domestic scenes to one of a muscular Native American aiming at giant airborne waterfowl with his bow and arrow. Scenes of early commerce appear in the mural of Selleck’s Warehouse with boat-building underway nearby. In another scene, well-dressed merchants review documents as a pair of yoked oxen is readied to drag cargo off a boat.
More murals are to be found in the stairwells leading to the second floor. They are believed to have been the work of Remington Schuyler, a Westport illustrator. The south side depicts Colonial women churning butter, laying out fish for drying and spinning. The fourth panel shows a Native American woman holding up her papoose to the sky in a celebratory spirit.
The north stairwell illustrates three Colonial men farming, working on a boat and axing a tree; while a fourth painting has a Native American extending his broad bow to the heavens, defiant and proud, perhaps a companion gesture to the Indian woman holding her baby high.
More murals await a visitor to the second floor.
Above the entrance-way to the meeting room is a rather darker mural with a military-industrial scene. Military aircraft buzz the sky and industry is coughing up smoke in the distance.
In contrast, the meeting room wall displays "A Pageant of Autumn" in three murals by Loran Wilford, a Stamford resident. They follow the theme of planting and harvesting, symbols of power and spirit to the artist, according to Madeline Hart, former executive director of the Darien Historical Society.
Juliana Force, then director of the Whitney Museum in New York and regional director for the Federal Arts Project, came to Darien on January 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 [a component of the WPA] paintings done anywhere."
While the murals take some artistic license—for example, the railroad appears in one of the Colonial-era murals although it did not come to Darien until 1848, and women appear in stylized portraits popular in advertising in the 1930s—they continue to be useful in contemplation of Darien’s earlier, simpler days.
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