Restoring Milford’s WPA murals

The journey to identify, locate and restore Milford's art commissioned under the Federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) has been a lengthy one, filled with intrigue.

The project began under the auspices of Milford Arts Council's first director, William Meddick, an artist with a lifelong interest in WPA art. In 1986, when Milford's Central Grammar School was being demolished, Meddick and then Board of Education Arts Coordinator Frank Vespi rescued a large portion of a WPA mural, “They Shall Pass This Way But Once,” designed by Frank Rutkoski and painted by Louis Agostini.

The mural once greeted students at their West River Street school. It was designed to cover the wall at the entrance of the school, then the town's largest educational institution with its 24 classrooms, a kindergarten and a large auditorium. Commissioned in 1937, the mural was installed on April 2, 1940 and remained until the school was demolished.

“We are so lucky that this fragment of the oil-on-canvas painting, ‘They Shall Pass This Way But Once’, has been saved,” said Marion Morra, curator of Milford's Permanent Art Collection. “Milford residents tell us they remember walking by the mural every day as they entered the school.

“Featuring female and male students at school, the mural's background shows the Plymouth Church, which was demolished in the 1950s, and what appears to be the Sanford-Bristol House. The mural fragment has been stored in a Board of Education office since it was saved by Bill and Frank. ”

The Central Grammar School mural was painted on white canvas, which was glued to fiberboard. The rescued fragment shows some paint loss, breaks in the fiberboard as well as damage to the picture surface (splatters of a white substance). The Milford Arts Council is launching a campaign to raise funds to stabilize and restore the mural so that it can be hung where the public can again admire it.

The WPA Program

The Works Projects Administration was started by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 and ran for some 10 years. It employed struggling out-of work artists during the Great Depression. Artists competed to create murals in public properties such as post offices, schools, museums, hospitals, housing projects and colleges. In Connecticut, some 160 artists created over 5,000 pieces of art.

Under the WPA program, the projects were run in cooperation with state and local governments, which provided 10% to 30% of the costs. For the art projects, the federal program usually paid the artists' salaries, while local entities allocated dollars for supplies and other miscellaneous expenses.

Restorations in Nearby Towns

Milford's restoration will join many Connecticut towns that have already restored their WPA art.

Norwalk has one of the nation's largest surviving collections of WPA murals. Thanks to a restoration effort in the 1980s, 23 murals from the walls of the Old Norwalk High School were restored at a cost of $250,000. The rescued artwork is on display in City Hall, Norwalk Community College, the city's public library, maritime aquarium and other public places.

Seven New Deal murals by James Daugherty were commissioned in 1934 for the Stamford High School music room. During a 1970 school renovation, the murals were cut into 30 pieces and thrown into the trash. A former student found the remnants in a dumpster and rescued what he could. They were restored by a New York art conservator and sold to private collectors.

In 2002 the city bought four of the restored murals for $400,000 to hang in public places. They are now in the Ferguson Public Library, Stamford High School's media center and the library of the Stamford UConn campus.

The New Haven district program was a partnership with the city and the staff of the Yale University Art Gallery, who served as volunteer administrators of the project. Several graduates of the Yale School of Fine Art were employed by the WPA program.

New Haven's restoration has included some 24 murals and lunettes commissioned through the program. They can be seen at several locations including the New Haven Free Public Library, Fair Haven Middle School, Westville Post Office, Goffe Street Armory, Nathan Hale School, and the Atwater Senior Center.

In Greenwich, an historic mural, “The Life and Times of General Israel Putnam”, by James Daugherty, originally created for its town hall, was rescued from the gymnasium of the Hamilton Avenue School. The restored mural now hangs in the Greenwich Public Library.