Lambdin Mural Hangs In New Home

For nearly 50 years, a spectacular mural hung just inside the main entrance to Saugatuck Elementary School, on Bridge Street.

Created by Westport artist Robert Lambdin as a WPA project, “Pageant of Juvenile Literature” greeted every visitor to the school. (It was also stared at by generations of mischief-makers, as they waited for meetings with the principal.)

Lambdin is well known for other murals, including a pair called “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” (one originally in a Saugatuck bank, now at Town Hall; the other at Westport Bank & Trust, preserved by the current tenant Patagonia), and “Spirit of Adventure,” which hangs over the entrance to the Town Hall auditorium.

But, says town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz, “Pageant” was Lambdin’s masterpiece. Its complexity, and the wide variety of characters he painted, “touch everyone who sees it,” she says. “People just get pulled into it.”

The left side of the 7-foot high, 20-foot high mural depicts an array of classic fictional characters: Minerva, Huck Finn, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Don Quixote, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe.

A closeup of the Robert Lambdin mural… (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Lambdin included himself too — as Long John Silver.

One of his models was Janet Aley, who now — near 90 — still lives in Westport. Another model was Howard Brubaker — great-grandfather of Westporter Brian Crane — who went on to become editor of Colliers.

The right side of the mural portrays great historical figures, like Leif Erikson, Joan of Arc, Pocahontas, George Washington, Clara Barton, Davey Crockett and Abraham Lincoln.

… and the right side.

The middle section shows the history of writing, from ancient Egypt to a quill pen, then a typewriter.

When Saugatuck Elementary School closed in 1984 — due to declining enrollment —  the Bridge Street building was unmaintained. Weather and vandals took their tolls.

In 1992, the town decided to convert the old Saugatuck El to senior housing. The murals were slated for demolition.

But a group of art-lovers — including Mollie Donovan, Eve Potts and Judy Gault Sterling — set out to save the work. Within a month they raised $40,000. That was enough to remove the mural, conserve it, and reinstall it at its new home: The Westport Library.

For nearly 25 years, the Robert Lambdin mural hung above the Westport Library’s Great Hall. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Opened just 6 years earlier, the library was an inspired choice. Hanging above the Great Hall, the mural — with its representations of literature and history — was visible to all.

Plus, back in the day Lambdin had actually been a Westport Library trustee.

More than a quarter century later though, the library is in the midst of its own renovation. A suitable spot could not be found, during or after the project.

Bennewitz and members of the Westport Public Art Collection searched for a large wall, with plenty of foot traffic. They — with architect Scott  Springer — found it, at Staples High School.

Which is how, the other day, the enormous mural was removed from the library, transported, and reassembled near the auditorium lobby. Hung proudly — and even closer to the public than at the library — “Pageant of Juvenile Adventure” will be seen by thousands of students every day, and folks of all ages at plays, concerts and other events.

Moving the mural was no easy task. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Bennewitz praised many groups, for making the move possible. Town Hall, the Westport Library and Westport school system worked together, coordinating manpower and equipment. Support also came from the Westport Arts Advisory Committee and Friends of WestPAC.

The mural was installed during school vacation. Students have not yet seen it. But everyone who passed by during the installation was impressed.

That includes Staples custodian Jeff Allen. A former Saugatuck El student, he remembers the mural well. He’s proud to see it back up in the school where he now works.

Staples custodian Jeff Allen admires the artwork.

He and many others will be in attendance this Friday (March 2, 2:45 p.m.). A rededication ceremony will include brief speeches, appropriate music (“House at Pooh Corner”) — and students, teachers and others dressed in costumes. (First Selectman Jim Marpe will portray Abraham Lincoln.)

Anyone who remembers the Lambdin mural from its original location at Saugatuck Elementary School is particularly welcome.

Of course, everyone who loves art, literature and history is encouraged to be there too.

BONUS FUN FACT: Robert Lambdin was not the only Westport WPA artist. During the 1930s, 17 local artists produced 34 artworks, and 120 photos.

Robert Lambdin’s “Pageant of Juvenile Adventure,” in its new home.

18 responses to “Lambdin Mural Hangs In New Home

  1. It is so good to see this and preserved at Staples. I saw this magnificent work nearly every day for many years, and I often took a lot of time to really look and understand every reference. It must have had a very loving restoration along the way: in the 50s it was very dark, kind of like the ceiling of the Sistine before cleaning a few years ago. I also well remember exactly where it was. The three rectangular shapes along the bottom edge fit around the three doors to the Saugatuck Auditorium, the theater where many of the early Staples Players and Stage Technical Staff got our inspiration. Thanks again Dan.

  2. I share Peter’s sentiments exactly. We used to line up in the main hallway waiting for the school bus to take us home, and that mural really captured my imagination. Peter’s sister, Melinda, was my classmate at Saugatuck right thru Staples. Can’t wait to show it to my grandsons on my next visit back.

  3. wide

  4. Isn’t there a mural in Kings highway school also?

  5. Thanks to Kathie et al for saving the mural once again, but I am sure going to miss it in the library.

  6. I hope The Lambdin Mural continues to be appreciated and enjoyed for many generations to come. It speaks, not only to its own subject matter in its array of representations but to its own story during those many tenuous days of the WPA and of the lives of the people for which it was originally created.

    I still think of the many times in my own childhood when my parents and I would visit the Detroit Institute of Arts. There, the Diego Rivera mural of Detroit Industry and technology from the WPA era span the walls of the great hall now named the Rivera Court, in his name. Still as majestic, as is Lambdin’s work of the WPA dedicated to the wonder of youth, I love them both and so many others…

  7. Tom Duquette, Staples '75

    Love that mural, provides fond memories of my Saugatuck days back in the 60’s. So pleased to see it preserved to inspire future students.

  8. Bonnie Scott Connolly

    Pretty funny that I only vaguely remember the mural but I can sing every word of the Saugatuck Elementary School fight song …. “There are many schools both great and small in this fair land – and the schools may all be very fine. But the school that I am praising and I want to sing about is SES in Saugatuck, school of mine. Saugatuck you are the school for me. Faithful to your standards I will try to be. The boys and girls of Saugatuck will loyal be to thee. Saugatuck you are the school for me.”

    • I remember it too…no idea what or if Staples had a school song…

      • Bonnie Scott Connolly

        “We are called the Staples Wreckers and the wrecking that we do, Teaches all the teams we tackle to respect the White and Blue, So if you would like to (see? cheer?) a team that’s (________) through and through, The Staples High School Wreckers sure can do!” At least that is what we sang after a touchdown at the football games.

  9. Saugatuck El graduates…please come join us at Staples on Friday, March 2, 2:45-3:15pm for the rededication of the mural!
    Nancy Diamond, Co-Chair, Westport Arts Advisory Committee

  10. Kathleen Motes Bennewitz

    Look forward to seeing people on Friday!

    Here is the list of the 1992 Saugatuck Murals Rescue Committee–pretty impressive group!
    Julie Belaga, Jean Boyd, John Boyd, Miggs Burroughs, Burt Chernow, Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, Betty Lou Cummings, Charles Daugherty, Lisa Daugherty, Francis DeLuca, Ginger Donaher, Naiad Einsel, Walter Einsel, Robert T. Gault, Linda Merk Gould, Soo Gunn, Martha Hauhuth Shirley Land, Sue Malloy, Howard Munce, Eve Potts, Carol Randel, Walt Reed, P.J. Romano, William Seiden, Marge Santella, Ann Sheffer, Ralph Sheffer, Dora Stuttman, Dorothy Tarrant, John Tarrant, Barbara Van Orden, Carol Waxman

  11. The King’s Farms murals were painted by John Steuart Curry. He was one of the big three of “American Regionalist” painters. The other two being Grant Wood “American Gothic” and Thomas Hart Benton. I would add Lamdin to that group.
    I first met Mr Lamdin at a sketch group in the late 60’s. I think it was at Harold Von Schmidt’s studio, next to the cemetery on Evergreen Avenue, but it may have been elsewhere. I was just a teenager.
    I learned a lot just watching him work. Also he told memorable stories about being born and raised in a sod hut in frontier Kansas. He also said he remembered hearing about the Wounded Knee Massacre at the time it happened. That made a big impression on me at the time. It was like meeting a real live cowboy.

  12. Awww how wonderful..glad it has been preserved. Now hanging in my high school after being in my elementary school ..

  13. Kathleen Motes Bennewitz

    Hi … the rescheduled rededication of the ROBERT LAMBDIN WPA mural, PAGEANT OF JUVENILE LITERATURE is this THURSDAY, APRIL 5, 2:45-3:15 at SHS-auditorium lobby. Please spread the word, as we’d love to have a crowd. All are welcome; RSVP is not required.

    Please join us at Staples High School on Thursday April 5 at 2:45pm for a brief ceremony recognizing the new home of Robert Lambdin’s mural Pageant of Juvenile Literature. For 25 years, Lambdin’s master work had been on view at the Westport Library. With the Library’s renovation underway, Town Curator Kathie Bennewitz and the Westport Arts Advisory Committee arranged to relocate the mural. Containing images of both historical and fictional children’s literature characters, Pageant of Juvenile Literature is now ideally situated at Staples High School outside the auditorium, home of the Staples Players.

    Thursday’s entertaining ceremony will see several of these characters come to life. This is all made possible by the enthusiastic participation of Bill Harmer, Executive Director of the Westport Library; James D’Amico, Principal of Staples High School; Jim Marpe, First Selectman; John Dodig, former Staples High School Principal; Elaine Daignault, Director of Human Services; Staples Players students Maizy Boozin and David Corro and Coleytown Middle School student Melody Stanger with her dad, Eric.

  14. I’m pretty certain that these were the inside cover of a series of children’s anthologies my family had when I was a young girl in Iowa. I think it was part of the Collier Encyclopedia set we had. I was struck by the images as soon as I saw this article. What a great childhood memory.

    Great work Kathie for helping keep this part of our town’s history alive and well!

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