WPA Mural Paintings
Among Gloucester’s treasures are its collection of murals painted as part of the Federal Art Project of the 1930s Works Progress Administration. City Hall and The Sawyer Free Library were two beneficiaries of the marriage between a vibrant local arts community and a federal government program.
The interior of this library is recognized as one of the fine examples of Colonial architecture; hence the problem of its decoration was one of fitness. Something was needed that would be adapted to the variety of size and shape of the various wall surfaces and yet have unity. The idea was to be Gloucester, not a photographic representation of particular houses, wharfs, streets, and so forth, but something that would feel like Gloucester.
There must be a harbor; there must be boats and landings; there must be suggestions of its fisheries, boat building, and back of it all, an expression of the surrounding farm life that helped the pioneers to exist while developing the commercial life of the settlement.
The spaciousness of the beautiful harbor seemed to be the big background, and consequently that has been used in a conventionalized way in the large panel of the west wall.
At the foot of the stairs, old buildings and a bit of rocky shore form large simple masses against the water. In the immediate foreground notice the cod-fish drying on the fish flakes. As we pass up the stairway, the space is occupied by fishing boats with spread sails seen against the blue of the harbor and the distant shore. A feeling of distance is obtained by the diminishing size of the boats, seen almost entirely in profile rather than by any lines of perspective which have been avoided as much as possible throughout the decorations.
The horizon for this wall is well up toward the ceiling of the second story and at a point that becomes “eye level” as one reaches the top of the stairs so that as one looks over the balustrade from that point, a feeling of the size of the harbor with the distant shore, of the city, of Rocky Neck, and Ten Pound Island is presented. To the left a bathing beach suggests the recreational features of the place.
On the east wall of the second story is a simplified representation of Dog Town Common with a tumble-down remnant of a cellar, a distant glimpse of the old “Whale’s Jaw”, a few scattered cattle, rocks and dwarf cedars—all that remains to tell the story of this almost mythical settlement of the early days.
Returning downstairs, one has the best view of the long panel on the east wall. At the right is an old building on the wharf at which there are several moored boats. In the shade of great trees, the building of a small schooner is in progress. To the left an old farm house, and a farmer plows with an ox team.
Opposite this panel, the stair wall depicts, the bringing in of the marsh hay. A low, flat, square-end boat called a “gundalow” was
loaded with hay and poled in from the marshes to a point where the tide coming up the Squam River relieved the workers of further labor. This work with a pole was called “fudgin”, at this point they were “done fudging” and the place is still known as “Done Fudgin”.
To the left and right in the vestibule are two small panels of a harbor scene, one of the old horse-drawn jiggers, the other the bluff-side stairway from near Union Hill.
The work was done entirely on the bare plaster wall, which being quite uneven gives it a rather antique appearance, harmonizing with the age of the building.
Mr. Stoddard (1861-1940), with the assistance of Howard Curtis (1906-1989), painted the murals as part of the Public Works of Art Program. Frederick Stoddard had a long career of mural painting, with sites including the Bell Telephone Co., St. Louis’s City Hall and Odeon Theater, several New York City public school buildings, and churches and homes in various states. He moved to Gloucester in 1922 and held offices at the Gloucester Society for Artists and the North Shore Art Association. He painted at least ten New Deal murals in Gloucester, including, Give us this Day our Daily Bread, for Central Grammar School, now on view at the O’Maley Middle School, three panels for the Eastern Avenue School, and a series of fish and animals in natural settings at the Forbes School.