The Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library is pleased to announce the restoration and conservation of its grand murals by renowned artist Frederick L. Stoddard (1861-1940) with the assistance of Howard Curtis (1906-1989). Located in the Library’s historic Saunders House, the murals were painted in 1934 as part of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. Along with Gloucester’s City Hall, the Sawyer Free Library was a local beneficiary of the federal government program designed to create jobs for artists and bring art to public places and communities across the country.
“Restoring these significant WPA murals depicting Gloucester’s origins is not only our responsibility but our great privilege. They are community artistic treasures and historically significant features of the Saunders House,” said Mern Sibley, the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library’s Board of Trustees’ President. “This project will preserve these unique works for historic study and enjoyment by residents and visitors.”
The artists’ work, completed over 80 years ago, was done entirely in oil paint on the bare plaster wall, giving the murals an antique appearance, harmonizing with the age of the Saunders House constructed in 1764. Built by Thomas Saunders, a prosperous merchant and a Representative to the Massachusetts General Court, at the time, it was one of the grandest houses in Gloucester and Boston’s North Shore. It became the permanent home of the Sawyer Free Library in 1884 when Samuel Sawyer generously deeded it for a public Library.
The Library’s murals titled “Scenes of the Region,” depict maritime culture against a backdrop of the agrarian life that supported the early settlement of Gloucester. Filling the great space throughout the main stairway of the Saunders House, the murals capture the activity of the busy working harbor with views of the distant rocky shoreline, the city, Rocky Neck, and Ten Pound Island. They also feature a simplified representation of Dogtown Common and old “Whale’s Jaw,” along with other colorful scenes offering unique glimpses of what life was like in Gloucester’s early days.
“As stewards of our city’s library, we are committed to the Saunders House’s preservation, as it is still the anchor of the Sawyer Free Library, rich with history and purpose,” added Sibley. “It is appropriate that this mural restoration project is the first of many as we move forward in realizing a reimagined, renovated, and expanded Sawyer Free Library, one that is worthy of our heritage and our future.”
The Stoddard mural restoration will be done by local conservator Lisa Mehlin of Essex, MA, who holds a Master of Art Conservation, and has seventeen years of experience in the conservation of oil paintings for government agencies, private institutions, and individual clients in the U.S. and Canada. She most recently completed work on the murals in The Stevens-Coolidge House & Gardens for the Trustees of the Reservations in North Andover.
The project will be completed in two phases with the first being consolidation, ensuring that all original mural pigment is still attached to the plaster. Phase two is the visual restoration process. After securing the pigment to the plaster, paints will be used to carefully tone back any white gaps where the paint flaked away, allowing the original design to shine through once again. The project is funded through Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library corporate funds.
The next phase in preserving and restoring Saunders House is anticipated to begin in early 2022, planned under the guidance of the Saunders House Stewardship Committee of the Library Board. The work will include, but not be limited to, stabilization of the building structure and restoration of the murals in the Anderson Room. Further renovation is planned to improve accessibility and upgrade building systems to support contemporary use by Library staff and the public.