Town Halls murals have rich history
Editor’s note: In honor of the town’s 200th anniversary, The Darien Times is featuring a different historical aspect of the town each month. For this month, the town hall murals are the focus.
When entering Darien’s Town Hall, one can’t help but look up in awe. In all directions, giant painted murals can instantly transport one to another place and time.
In total, at least two dozen murals are displayed throughout town hall — in the entryway, auditorium, stairwells and second-floor meeting room, room 206. Each one shows a period or significant event from the town’s history, dating back to Colonial times.
All the murals were painted in the 1930s as part of a federally-sponsored program through the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). About 11 artists were employed in Darien under this program.
In the entrance way, in shades of greens and reds with blends of other colors mixed in, there is a mural called “The Kings Highway in Colonial Days from Stamford to Norwalk.”
The mural shows families riding in horse and buggies, farmers herding oxen, and children jumping into a lake. Townspeople wore clothing of that period — such as a loose linen shirt, breeches, and long woolen socks.
A second mural is also called “The Kings Highway,” but this one says “Main overland route between Boston and New York in the 18th century.”
The artist of these murals was Robert Pallesen of Darien, who was a member of the Guild of the Seven Arts.
“The Guild of the Seven Arts was a Darien-based society designed to promote the arts. It existed roughly from the late 1920s to the mid-‘30s, when it went broke,” said Ken Reiss, a historian with the Darien Historical Society. The guild held art shows, put on plays, and gave classes.
According to Karen Polett, secretary of Darien’s Monuments and Ceremonies Commission, Pallesen lived and worked in the white house behind the First Congregational Church of Darien. The house and garage still stand, and are owned by James Lewis, a businessman who donated a mural from the house to the Darien Historical Society.
The Kings Highway
Today in town, there are Old Kings Highway North and Old Kings Highway South, divided by the railroad.
“To my knowledge, [Old Kings Highway] was always referred to simply as ‘the country road,’ with ‘country’ meaning ‘government,’ as it was a post road mandated by law for the carriage of the mail, but was maintained, usually badly, in Colonial days by the towns through which it passed,” Reiss said.
Reiss added that the Kings Highway reference is fairly modern.
“It pops up in towns up and down the line, like Fairfield, Westport, etc. Roads did not have official names until the 20th century when post offices began to deliver and firemen needed directions,” he said.
Prior to that time, they were always either called the Boston Road, Stage Road, Post Road, Country Road or, in town, Main Street, according to Reiss.
If the reference had ever been the King’s anything, that ended with the Revolution, he added.
Some of the murals in the auditorium “tell the tale of early settlers in our area and take us through farming and industrial ages,” Polett said.
Two murals show the Tory raid on the Middlesex Parish Meeting House during the American Revolution. About 50 men were captured that day, including the Rev. Moses Mather.
The raid was part of a complex situation during the last years of the Revolution, according to Reiss.
“The Associated Loyalists, who were not a part of the British Army, needed to capture Patriot militiamen and officials to swap for their own members who were locked up in Connecticut jails. They let about half the group go because they had no trading value — just old farmers and such,” Reiss said. “Mather, as the local congregational clergyman, was actually an official of the state because he represented the official state religion in his parish and was responsible for transmitting the official word to the community. He was particularly effective, hence a major irritant to the Tories.”
Also in the auditorium, there is a mural of Sally Dibble, who shielded a young boy from capture and refused to surrender him to a soldier, demanding the boy’s release, according to First Selectman Jayme Stevenson at the recent Darien’s 200th anniversary kickoff.
“The much-beloved Sally Dibble story concerns her hiding a young boy with her skirts, lest he be taken as a captive,” Reiss said.
In the town hall stairwells, eight panels show a native American or Colonial American person spinning, gathering fish, and churning.
“They show the ways of life of the people who lived during those times. They were all parts of the daily occupation of staying alive — spinning flax and wool into thread and yarn was what led to the woven cloth for everyday use,” Reiss said. “Fishing was never huge here, as far as I know, but it did go on and was a food source. Churning turned the excess milk into butter, which, properly stored, had a fairly long shelf life which lasted beyond the season when the cows were producing milk.”
Those panels are thought to be painted by Remington Schuyler, a Westport artist who lectured on Native American lore to Darien High School students. Town Hall was formerly the location of Darien High School.
Traditional jobs are also performed by people depicted in the murals in room 206. In those murals, which show a brown, mountainous landscape, Colonial men are cutting wood, plowing, and harvesting.
Artistic talent vs. historical value
The murals should be viewed for artistic skill as opposed to historical accuracy, according to Reiss.
“They are wonderful examples of public art from the 1930s and not as wonderful historical records,” he said.
Reiss continued: “That, really, is their historical value. While the basic story is correct, the images are not necessarily evidence of historical accuracy. The artists didn’t have a lot of really strong historical facts to go with, so they went essentially with what looks good.”
For example, in the raid on the meeting house mural, there are many British soldiers in red coats. However, Reiss said there were no British soldiers on that raid. The artist assumed there were.
“The raids were carried out entirely by American Tories who were part of an organization called the Associated Loyalists,” Reiss said. “They were headquartered across the Sound in Lloyd’s Neck, and they were equipped and courted by the British Army. There was an encampment and a fortification over there.”
He added that they were guerrillas who were organized to harass the Patriot citizens. They were not uniformed British soldiers.
Another example of inaccuracy is the railroad that appears in Pallesen’s Colonial history mural in the lobby. There was no such railroad there in that time period.
“It was the New York and New Haven Railroad — a one-track affair that opened in 1849 along the route that became the New York, New Hampshire, and Hartford line, and now is the Metro-North,” Reiss said.
As a whole, Reiss said the murals are “a real example of how the government during the Depression paid artists to decorate the interiors of public buildings.”
These artists were highly qualified, according to Reiss, and some of them later became very well known.
“It is these artworks that represent a period in our history which was a time of great economic trauma. These artists left us something we should absolutely treasure,” Reiss said. “If, sometimes, they don’t specifically convey the exact history, that really is not relevant. The ideas are accurate. The heritage is terrific.”