Sunday, November 23, 2014
By James Lomuscio
Saugatuck, the once working class, mostly Italian-American section of Westport—the area state officials in the 1950s figured it would be easier to build the Connecticut Turnpike through rather than affluent Greens Farms—got its just deserts today.
At the opening of a Westport Historical Society’s (WHS) exhibition titled “Saugatuck @ Work—Haven of Community, Commerce and Innovation,” the neighborhood was revered not only as an important area of Westport, but as its matrix.
Kathleen Motes Bennewitz, Town Curator who organized the exhibit, was quick to remind the more than 100 persons in attendance “Saugatuck was Westport’s downtown before Westport was Westport.”
Before the town was incorporated in 1835, Westport was called Saugatuck and was a part of the towns of Fairfield and Norwalk.
The mural “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” created in 1969 by the late Westport artist Robert L. Lambdin anchors the exhibit. The meticulously researched wall mural depicts the area bustling with commerce and community.
Commissioned by the the Westport Bank & Trust Company for the opening of its Saugatuck branch 1970, the 6 by 10 feet mural is a melange of 1800s time periods.
It features: sailing and steam vessels, even a pole pushed raft hauling oxen; a steam locomotive; the old Saugatuck Bank started by Horace Staples, which would later become the now closed Westport Bank & Trust; an active dock with produce, locally grown onions in particular, ready for transport; a woman displaying buttons from Elonzo Wheeler’s button factory; and a bearded, stoic looking sea captain, Sereno Gould Allen.
Idyllic, yes, but looming overhead in the mural, and a nod to its future, is the Connecticut Tunrpike bridge, which Bennewitz said acts like a unifying, artistic element.
“What it doesn’t show is how it cut the community out of it,” she said.
According to Bennewitz, Saugatuck evolved as a tight-knit community of Irish, then Italian immigrants who came to Westport to work on the railroad, in factories and as stonemasons and gardeners.
A companion exhibit devoted to the life of those immigrants, “Framing Saugatuck,” will run concurrently in the WHS Mollie Donovan Gallery.
For years, Landin’s painting hung in the Westport Bank & Trust branch, which later became TD Bank. When the TD branch closed more than a year ago, Bennewitz said, Westporter Ann Sheffer contacted her about the need to save the painting, one of three done by Lambdin.
The other two still grace the Patagonia building on Post Road East, formerly Westport Bank & Trust’s main branch.
“The bank graciously gave it to the town,” Bennnewitz said, crediting then First Selectman Gordon Joseloff for helping the WHS secure and restore the mural. For the past year Joe Matteis of Clinton, a professional restorer of murals, worked to bring it to its original luster.
According to Sue Gold, WHS executive director, the exhibit was funded via a CT @ Work grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, Betty R. and Ralph Sheffer Foundation, Westport Rotary, Westport Arts Advisory Committee, Westport Auction, Edward F. Gerber, Darien Rowayton Bank, and Bankwell.
Today, Matteis gathered with WHS archivist Sven Selander and sea captain Allen’s great-great-great-granddaughter Katherine Daught Jacob of Weston and great-great-great-grandson Wm. Bradley Kellogg of Fairfield. Selander regaled them with stories about their colorful ancestor.
“My compliments to another super exhibit,” said Marpe. “I can’t wait until the mural has a permanent place across the street.”
After the show ends in April, the mural will become part of the permanent art collection at Town Hall. Marpe noted that there is currently a Lambdin painting behind his desk.
Done in the 1950s, it portrays the British landing at Compo Beach in April 1777 to begin their march toward Danbury.
“This mural does an extraordinary job of capturing the sense of Saugatuck throughout the ages,” Marpe said, “and it reflects the vibrancy that still exists in that community now more than ever.”
Posted 11/23/14 at 04:10 PM Permalink