January 1st, 2015 until June 14th, 2015
Saugatuck’s Past Come Alive in Westport’s Artist Mural
Robert L. Lambdin’s meticulously researched mural depicting Saugatuck as a center of manufacturing and river commerce in 19th century Westport will anchor the exhibition “Saugatuck @ Work – Haven of Community, Industry, Innovation”.
The late Westport artist’s large wall painting, “Saugatuck in the 19th Century,” was created for the Westport Bank & Trust Company’s Saugatuck branch when it opened in 1970. It measures 6 by 10 feet and shows the various types of vessels that plied the river over the course of the century, as well as such long-gone landmarks as the Saugatuck Bank, precursor of Westport Bank & Trust, and the Methodist Church, and those that still survive: Saugatuck original firehouse and the village’s historic swing bridge and train depot. Though I-95 did not come into being until the mid 20th century, its bridge over the river appears as a huge arc framing the riverfront scene.
“The mural’s depiction of the genesis of our town is a great teaching tool for our students and hopefully will stimulate dialogue and further exploration,” said Westport’s Town Curator, Kathleen Motes Bennewitz, who curated the exhibit. “And with Saugatuck’s present-day renewed economic and social vitality,” she added, “comes a unique opportunity to build a new awareness and appreciation of its rich historical, economic and cultural significance as the first town center, not simply ‘a neighborhood of Westport.’ ”
The exhibition will also display historic photographs of workers and workplaces of the village, antique maps of Saugatuck harbor, vintage tools made there, patents by Saugatuck inventors, costumes, and ship and railroad logs.
In addition, the Society and partner organizations will offer an array of education programs to WHS members and to adult, youth and family audiences in Westport and the towns with which it shares a common heritage. They will include book and film discussions, community conversations, exhibitions, performances and more.
In the early years of the Connecticut Colony, the area known today as Westport was called Saugatuck and was a part of the towns of Fairfield and Norwalk. The river was the boundary between the two towns. But by 1835, the river’s growing economic importance moved Saugatuck’s business leaders, concerned that their river was playing second fiddle to ports closer to the centers of Norwalk and Fairfield, to have Saugatuck incorporated as a town to be called Westport.
Bennewitz says Saugatuck’s location near the mouth of the river, allowing raw materials to be delivered by boat and products to be shipped to New York and other ports, made it an ideal setting for manufacturing and maritime commerce. One of Saugatuck’s longtime employers was Elonzo Wheeler’s button factory, and some of Wheeler’s buttons, produced from ivory nuts imported from Brazil, along with local produce, can be seen in the foreground of Lambdin’s mural waiting to be loaded onto a market boat. Saugatuck eventually became a tight-knit community of Irish and Italian immigrants who came to Westport to work in factories and as stonemasons, gardeners and laborers on the railroad.
A companion exhibit devoted to the life of those immigrants, “Framing Saugatuck,” will run in the WHS’s Mollie Donovan Gallery concurrently with “Saugatuck @ Work.” In a recent interview, retired Westport police officers John Anastasia and Ted Giannitti, who grew up in Saugatuck, said the fact that its homes were huddled together contributed to the closeness of the community. Holidays saw food passed from family to family as a form of community sharing, and one of the village’s homes even had a large outdoor stone oven where women from the neighborhood made bread. St. Anthony’s Hall on Franklin Street was a focal point of the community, and on the saint’s day, it hosted fireworks and a parade.
But the construction of I-95 in the mid-1950s cut a wide swath through the community, taking some of the old ways with it. Those whose homes were spared made do as best they could, according to Anastasia and Giannitti, but the festival and parade were gone for good. Some of the homes, however, were moved, and one of these, a beautiful three-story Victorian, now sits on Sunrise Street overlooking Saugatuck.
“Framing Saugatuck” will be a celebration of Saugatuck families, their heritage and contributions to the Town of Westport.
Robert Lambdin, a Kansas native who moved to Westport in 1918, painted the Saugatuck mural in the later years of a long, successful career as an illustrator and muralist. He died here in 1981 at the age of 94. According to the Westport News, the artist spent months “reading local histories, delving into yellowed records at the library, studying old photographs, and talking with old-timers who remembered those days.”
Westport Bank & Trust eventually merged into TD Bank, which donated the mural to the town when it closed and sold the Saugatuck office earlier this year. The mural was then handed over to Joseph T. Matteis of Clinton Fine Arts Workshop for cleaning and restoration. After the show at the Historical Society the mural will become part of the permanent art collection at Town Hall.
Bennewitz said the exhibit was made possible by a CT @ Work grant from CT Humanities. The exhibit and accompanying programs help the CT at Work initiative meet its goal of sharing stories about the past, present and future of CT at Work, she said. Local sponsors for the show are the Connecticut Humanities, Betty R. and Ralph Sheffer Foundation, Westport Rotary, Westport Arts Advisory Committee, Westport Auction, Edward F. Gerber, Darien Rowayton Bank and Bankwell.