Advocates Fear Tide Going Out On “River Of Names”

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.

One of the tiles shows Stevan Dohanos’ Saturday Evening Post cover of the World War II memorial outside the old Town Hall. It’s surrounded by tiles honoring familes and civic organizations. (Photo courtesy of fotki.com)

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.

The River of Names.

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.”

(For more information, email save.our.river.of.names@gmail.com)

13 responses to “Advocates Fear Tide Going Out On “River Of Names”

  1. As two of the many local tile donors, my wife and I are curious: is the library essentially saying there is no specific plan at this point for the placement of the mural in the renovated library? We understand that the library has not raised all of the money towards its ultimate goal, but hopefully there is a Plan B (and/or Plan C) for the overall design and construction in the event a lower amount is raised.

    The mural is unquestionably one of the real arts treasures in town and we hope it would be given a prominent spot in the new library–and that there are specific placement plans in place for whatever amount is ultimately raised.

  2. Richard Epstein

    Our family bought 2 small tiles that I visit when I pass by this in the library.
    Because I am on the Westport Arts Advisory Committee, I have been fortunate to have seen the plans that the Library has made to re-install the wall – which, at over 26 feet , will take up a lot of wall space. But the solution I saw keeps it prominently visible to
    all and still honor those who appreciate the library so much.

    It will be a tricky job to disassemble it and reinstall but I sincerely hope that
    Ms. Grebow will appreciate the effort it will take to preserve this wonderful installation and will lend her hand to
    Recreate the river in its new location.

  3. The River of Names is really quite an amazing bit of work – and a pretty effective Westport history lesson too.

    After reading this piece, I can sure understand the nervousness of the artwork’s advocates. Something seems off. Everyone on the library/town side is talking with very carefully chosen words about how the artwork will be removed and stored – but they stop short of saying WHERE in the library it be re-installed. It leaves one with the impression that perhaps there is no plan to reinstall the piece. Maybe someone from the library will now clarify.

  4. Interesting, Dan, that you feature Steve Dohanos’ painting of the “HONOR ROLL” which stood in front of the old Town Hall, honoring Westporters who fought valiantly and gave their very lives for us all in WW I and II.
    It was very precious, and very much a part of Westport’s life when I was growing up.

    During some “renovation” – or whatever, it was removed, taken away with a “promise” that it would be re-installed but it was never seen again. Never. From time to time people talked about it and looked for it and mourned its irreplaceable loss but it had completely disappeared. No one had (or would admit to) an answer. I’m not sure when this happened, but maybe in the ’70s? Someone will know the year at least.

    Yes, years later a replacement was put on the Green in front of the new Town Hall, which is very nice, but it’s just not the same, nor has it the same history, intimacy or meaningfulness of the original, erected in the day when the loss and wounds were still fresh.

    So, there certainly is a lesson here, it seems. Be proactive, be vigilant. Have a written guarantee. It saddens me to think that another irreplaceable piece of Westport’s unique history may be lost.
    (Full disclosure) There is our Bradley tile, too.

  5. Over the years I have stopped at Westport Library and I have made a point of reading the tiles and admiring the pictures. It’s a lovely well done piece of history and artwork.
    It’s REALLY a history lesson for All about Westport!
    The Library draws people from surrounding communities. It would be tragic to see this lost and forgotten (or worse broken destroyed 😱).
    I suggest the Director put some thought and planning into taking it down carefully and then putting it back up.
    That’s what a library is for…teaching and learning.
    This tile wall is not just artwork it’s a teaching and learning tool.

  6. Bonnie,
    you took the words right out of my mouth.

  7. People gave to this worthy project thinking that their tile would be viewed in perpetuity. This is really wrong to not have a plan and to dismantle the wall and put it in storage somewhere. The Director of the Library really has missed the boat on this one. The Director may have killed the goose that played the golden egg.

  8. So much of the history of Westport has been “lost” or destroyed. Surely that will not be the case here.

  9. Perhaps Marion Grebow’s work could be re-installed as a gently serpentined free-standing structure (not unlike a river), if linear space is a concern in the new plans for the library. I would think natural light would also be ideal in its display, to enhance its shimmering aspect in the varying ways natural light would strike it. How detailed could these renovation plans be at this stage if there has been no accommodation, other than storage, for this well-loved art?

  10. As someone who has been involved with preserving Westport’s artistic heritage for many years, I am delighted that the Arts Advisory Committee is working with the Library to make sure that the Tile Wall is not only protected during the construction project, but reinstalled in a meaningful location once the Library Transformation is completed. A lot of the questions raised in the comments about the Tile Wall are answered in the press release from the Library, detailing the plans for preserving the Tile Wall…I’ve attached it here, in case anyone would like to know the whole plan to dismantle, store, and reinstall it as soon as the renovation is completed.

    The exact location where it will go is still under discussion (with all of those involved in creating the Wall) — however, it’s my understanding that one of the proposals is to install the Tile Wall outside of the Children’s Room. I personally think that would be the perfect place for it, as a way to celebrate and present the history of Westport to new generations…

    Some of my most satisfying achievements over the years with the Library, the Historical Society, and the Arts Advisory Committee have come when we worked in concert to preserve and honor our Town’s artistic and cultural heritage…and I am confident that this effort will be another demonstration of Westport’s commitment to honoring its Past, while imagining the Future.

    *******************************************************

    Westport Library Announces Plans for Artwork and Installations Ahead of Transformation Project Construction in September

    Westport, CT – With construction beginning on the Westport Library’s Transformation Project in mid-September, the Library announced a comprehensive plan for the numerous installations and unique artwork in the Library collection during the nearly two-year renovation project.

    “As excited as we are for the innovative plans for the future of the Library, we are equally cognizant of the importance of honoring our past,” said Westport Library Executive Director Bill Harmer. “Our team of designated experts has been working tirelessly with staff and volunteers to catalogue, package and store these art works so that they are well protected during construction.”
    One of the first phases of the Transformation plan was the removal and storage of the more than 150 works of art that have been on display throughout the library’s public spaces, reading and program rooms and staff offices. Earlier this summer, these artworks were reappraised, cleaned, photographed, and packed and then transported by art handlers to a professional fine art storage location.
    To ensure the proper protection of the artwork and to manage costs, true community collaboration was required. Volunteers from the Westport Arts Advisory Committee, the Westport Public Art Collection Committee, the Westport Artists Collective and interns from Staples High School and Norwalk High School worked together under the leadership of consultant Kathleen Motes Bennewitz, who also serves as the art curator for the town of Westport.

    “All the volunteers were trained and worked in teams, as packing artworks requires special care,” said Bennewitz. “The large scale and highly valuable works required the expertise of the professional art handlers to pack.”

    One of the most significant collections that was moved is the 90 piece “Black & White Collection” comprised of drawings, illustrations and fine art prints by Westport artists that adorned the walls of the McManus Room on the Library’s Riverwalk. The marble bust of Library founding patron Morris Jesup formerly located in the Great Hall was moved in late May and is currently on loan and display at Westport Town Hall. The 1935 W.P.A. mural “Pageant of Juvenile Literature” by Westport artist Robert Lambdin currently hanging in the Great Hall will be taken down in 2018 when work begins on the Main Level.

    Another significant piece to be moved is the “River of Names” donor wall on the Riverwalk Level outside the McManus Room. In 1997-98 the Westport Library commissioned the creation of a tile wall acknowledging donors to the capital campaign. Tiles that form the donor wall include the names and messages of past library donors and depict pictorial scenes from more than 350 years of Westport’s history. The plan for the new Library presented logistical challenges with keeping “River of Names” in its current location, so the installation will be carefully and professionally removed this September and stored until its disposition may be determined.

    “Our family grew up enjoying our corner “Arts” tile and the rest of the art in the Library,” recalled Nancy Diamond, tile donor and co-chair of the Westport Arts Advisory Committee. “It’s gratifying to see the Library continue to be so thoughtful with respect to all of its collection as the Transformation Project begins.”

    “We are very excited about the bold new vision for the Westport Library,” said Dr. Richard Epstein, co-chair of the Westport Arts Advisory Committee. “As we watch it come to life, we have been so pleased to see the Library take such care with the artwork and installations in its collection.”  

    Construction is scheduled to begin on the $19.5 million renovation project in September and will last for approximately 18-21 months. The work will be done in phases to keep the Library open and accessible to the community. By staging the construction, the Library will avoid the expenditure of millions of dollars in non-recoverable expense for renting and moving to /from temporary space.

    “Westport is and always has been a vibrant community full of creativity and artistic expression,” said Westport Library Board of Trustees President Joe Pucci. “To honor that spirit, the Library has a proud history of showcasing extraordinary art and installations and this will remain a priority when the new building is complete.”

    Phase I (first 8 months) of construction will focus on preparing the Riverwalk Level for its ultimate use as the permanent home of the adult book collection and a quiet reading/study space, while also creating a newly designed entrance, which will capitalize on the Library’s beautiful, central location in the heart of the downtown area. During this phase, the Riverwalk Level will be closed to patrons, while the Main and Upper Levels will remain open, except for very limited periods.

    Celebrate the official kick-off of the Transformation Project by joining us at the Groundbreaking Ceremony at the Library on September 14 at 6 p.m. For more on the specific elements of the Transformation Project, visit wltransformationproject.org.

    ####

  11. Thank you Cathy, for your comment. I’ll add that no one has mentioned that at the time the “River of Names” was established the tiles were quite expensive for Westporters to purchase – about $100 for the small tile as I remember, in the day when you could buy a loaf of bread for 35 cents. The project was promoted as a big fund raiser for the library, so by it’s possible loss the good faith of everyone who paid for one would be tossed aside as irrelevant.

  12. Good faith of the donors will be lost, as it has for my family when we purchased a brick for the outdoor brick walkway. The inferior product that
    Was used caused most all of the engravings on the bricks to soon unreadable within a few years. There was no recourse, so I was told when I contacted the committee. Fund raisers with installations of tiles or bricks can’t promise perpetuity. Lesson learned. The Westport Library is still a good investment.
    Loss of the memorial bricks and tiles will still be a disappointment.

  13. Speak to whoever placed the donor bricks outside London’s Globe Theatre.

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