For 20 years, the River of Names has stood as one of the Westport Library‘most unique, quirky and popular attractions.
Stretching 26 feet long and standing 6 feet high, the mural contains 1,162 tiles. Each was individually created and drawn by artist Marion Grebow. Some portray historical events, like the founding of Westport, onion farming and the arrival of the railroad.
Others feature favorite places around town: the Compo Beach cannons, Minute Man monument and Staples High School. Some cite local organizations and businesses.
Most show the names of nearly 1,000 families. They honor parents, children and pets. They note when the families came to town, and where they lived.
The River of Names was a special fundraiser. Under the direction of former 2nd selectman Betty Lou Cummings and Westport Historical Society/Westport Woman’s Club leader Dorothy Curran, sales of the tiles brought in $300,000 for the library’s capital campaign.
Donors were promised that the mural would exist in perpetuity.
The River of Names draws visitors — some curious, some wanting to find their own tile, all intrigued — to the lower “Riverwalk” level of the library.
Grebow designed her mural to be looked at like the river itself. Taken together, the individual tiles appear to shimmer and move — imitating the Saugatuck River a few yards away.
But the library has embarked on an exciting 18-month “transformation” project. The downstairs level will be where most books are stored; a new entrance there will open up the river, improving the entire library experience for all.
On Wednesday, the mural will be taken down. A group of Westporters — including Curran, Cummings and arts advocates — fears for what happens next.
They worry that the library has no written plan for removing the mural from the wall. They don’t know where it will be stored, and how the tiles will be labeled so they can be replaced in the precise spots Grebow selected. And they haven’t gotten definite word on where it will be exhibited once the transformation is complete.
I asked library director Bill Harmer about those concerns. He replied: “Yes, it’s safe. It will be safely taken down and safely stored. It will be available for re-hanging when the library renovation project is completed.”
Town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz adds:
The Library has held discussions with Marion Grebow, individuals involved in the 1998 fundraising project, the original installer, and (as early as 2014) with 3rd-party fine art service firms on how best to de-install, pack, transport and store the wall.
The priority has always been to protect the wall during construction. I am confident it will be professionally handled and stored until it can come back to the library.
Meanwhile, mural advocates produced a video about the River of Names.
At the end, Curran says: “Every day the tide goes in, and the tide goes out. But the river remains.
“I hope that the names will, too.”
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