River of Names Mural: The Library Responds

Westporters reacted with fury to yesterday’s announcement that the River of Names mural will not be re-hung in the Westport Library.

Most of the dozens of readers responding to the “06880” story expressed chagrin that the 26-foot long, 6-foot high mural — whose 1,162 tiles represent 350 years of Westport history and memorials to families, and which was commissioned as a 1997 fundraiser — will reappear only in digitized form.

Some commenters asked for their tiles back. Others wondered if the mural — removed during the Transformation Project — was already destroyed.

The River of Names was hung in the lower level of the Westport Library.

Some readers also wondered why no library representatives stepped forward to respond.

This morning, they did.

Original plans for the transformed library included a spot for the River of Names, say director Bill Hamer and board of trustees president Iain Bruce.

It was to be located on the upper level, outside the children’s library near new meeting rooms. It’s a high-traffic area, just beyond the elevator and at the top of stairs. The mural would be well-lit, visible from the main level — and in an area where new generations of youngsters could learn Westport’s history from it.

Library officials presented the idea to 3 key River of Names stakeholders: Betty Lou Cummings, who conceived the project; Dorothy Curran, who shepherded it through, and Marion Grebow, the artist who created every tile.

They objected adamantly. The reason: It would wrap around a corner, on an “L”-shaped wall. They believed that would destroy the “river” design. They insisted it be remounted on one straight wall.

“We were sensitive to their feelings,” Bruce said. “We did what we had to do all along: We took it down.”

This view from the main floor looks toward the childen’s library above (behind the portholes). Library officials proposed hanging the River of Names nearby. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

The wall on the lower level of the library no longer exists. The mural had to be removed and stored in one piece. Individual tiles cannot be taken apart.

The library hired Crozier Fine Arts, a professional moving and storage company. They carefully took the mural down (including the wall it is permanently part of). They preserved it, and are storing it in Ridgefield under climate-controlled conditions.

The cost to the library is $30,000 so far.

After the 3 originators told the library it could not be rehung on 2 walls, town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz searched for a spot in another building.

However, Harmer says, “it can’t just hang on any wall. It’s very, very heavy.” To accommodate the mural, an existing wall would have to be demolished and rebuilt, or reinforced — at an expense considerably more than it cost to remove it. No town body was willing to pay.

“The library is committed to cooperating with any town agency or other body that wants to install the tile wall on its premises,” Harmer says.

However, an outdoor location like the Levitt will not work. The tiles were not made to withstand New England weather. If they got wet and froze, they would shatter.

The River of Names includes tiles for places like the original Westport Library, and others honoring families, local businesses and historic events.

“It was never our intention to have an irate public,” Bruce says. “A digital version seemed most logical, once we could not hang it in the library, and no one stepped up with an appropriate alternate place.”

“It was not sledgehammered,” he continues. “It is being carefully stored.”

In fact, Harmer says, the wall outside the children’s library was designed — and has been built — with the mural in mind.

“We told Betty Lou and Dorothy yesterday that it could still go there,” the director says. “We’re sorry we came to a crossroads. We’ve invested a lot of money and hours into trying to do the right thing. It’s a question of balancing the wishes of the original sponsors against our desire for an appropriate space.”

Bruce adds, “If they came back tomorrow and said they supported our original proposal, we’d do whatever we could to make it happen.”

46 responses to “River of Names Mural: The Library Responds

  1. Evan Stein

    I don’t understand the objection.

    Rivers can’t turn?

  2. David Meth

    It is fine to go to the original sponsors for their feelings and comments about where the wall should be placed. But this wall does not belong to them. It doesn’t even belong to the library. It belongs to all the people who contributed to build the wall, the daily visitors to the library and, especially, the people of the town. It is part of the town’s character, history, and culture—not to the three people who initiated the project.

  3. Celeste Champagne

    I am a Norwalk resident who loves Westport AND the Westport Library. I thank the library execs for carefully planning to reinstall the wall. I do not know the originators of the piece who objected, but think they are being overly sensitive or “overly-artsy” in objecting to the manner in which the wall could be successfully rehung. Isn’t the purpose of the wall for the PEOPLE of Westport (and environs) to see it hung in its proper original place? I hope they reconsider rather than pursuing what seems to be selfish reasons to not hang it in the manner the redesigned Library arranged.

  4. January Stewart

    I hope they change their minds and choose to have it hung on the wall outside the children’s library, even though it wraps arounds. It’s so beautiful in person. It should be where people can see it!

  5. Jayne Mauborgne

    I am one of the furious. How utterly ridiculous that with the amount of money and time spent they cannot find a place for the River of Names. What is wrong with this? It should have been seen as sacrosanct right from the start and the expansion should have been planned around it, not as an afterthought. Jayne Mauborgne

  6. Jonathan McClure

    Rivers bend and so should we all

    • Jamie Walsh

      This “river” is a mural and was never intended to bend. More thoughtful consideration should have been taken throughout the entire process. This mural represents an important part of the history of the people who made up the fabric of our community Up until 1997. Without many of them…there would be no amazing resource that is the envy of many other communities.

  7. Just bad policy. I’ve sat on a number of nonprofit boards over the years, and, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s much easier to get new donations from previous donors than new donations from new donors.

    Aside from a fairly obtuse response from the library, common sense would tell you to honor the “heritage” of the library. I wouldn’t want to lose the support of the names on the original installation.

    Or, perhaps, Westport, has become so transitory that heritage no longer matters?

  8. Sandie Cole

    Again.,,hang it in the library. If you want also digitize it.

  9. Rivers do bend, so, why not have it wrap around the wall that was designed for it? I hope the originators of the concept will ‘come around to the bend’. Our family has one small tile, but I enjoyed seeing it there. No way would I look it up on a monitor. If a majority of the hundreds of original donors are in favor of the new location, which involves rehanging the actual tile wall, the three who objected should reconsider. I hope they do.

    • Joyce Bottone

      Totally agree. Rivers do bend…It’s important for those families who have donated and to future generations to admire this towns heritage. And I hope a bench is placed there as well. My family donated to the river walk years ago, and unfortunately, the brinks didn’t weather our seasons, but this beautiful wall should be proudly hung within the library for all see and admire … and ponder its fate!

  10. Carmine Picarello

    The gift that keeps on giving. “Dear Abby, A dearly loved relative recently made a gift of his prized Arabian Stallion. It’s a beautiful animal and so impressive. My problem is I live in a small apartment in a crowded city. It’s costing me thousands of dollars per month. I can’t afford to house it, let alone feed it. What can I do without offending my relative? Signed; “Overburdened””

  11. Rick Leonard

    Well put, Jonathan McClure! I’ve always enjoyed the mural and its ability to take us all back in time locally. I think the wrap around the corner is fine, it provides a nice pause in the viewing experience. Situating River of Names in a well-lit, high-traffic and accessible spot at the new library is a huge improvement from its former out-of-the-way location downstairs.

  12. Arline Gertzoff

    As a longtime Westporter I feel strongly it needs to be hung at the library So it goes around a corner the more fun to explore it.
    If all else fails hang it in Town Hall.Digital is fine for a document but not the tiles .
    It needs to be hung for all to enjoy.

  13. Mitch Thompson

    Just looking for clarification on one thing……it was built as a one piece structure and is being stored as a single piece, but it could be broken down into essentially two halves?

    Too bad that the logistics weren’t properly discussed and definitively worked out during the planning of the new building, rather than now.
    The ball was dropped on that……….

  14. Fred Cantor

    Very glad to hear the wall is intact.

  15. David Feliciano

    We visit Rome, Salzburg, Budapest and Pest, even St. Petersburg (no collusion) and London to view our common past. Even small towns have fascinating Antiqities. Not so in America, we pave over paradise to make a Parking Lot…

    In so large a structure is the no place for a little reality for the fine Westportians who made a difference in making a dream real? In my first few days in Wesport I labored on an improved playground at Combo Beach with folks of all color, creeds, sex, social status, in cutting and shaping Trex boards into all sorts of creative shapes. I instructed a young lady in the use of a router. She far exceeded my abilities, saying that her husband would not let her use “his power tools” I humbly let her do the more intricate of the cuts.

    The names on the picket fences made me proud that my neighbors had given generously for the common good without tax to the Town! It is an honor to serve and work and A little preservation of history and service can serve as inspiration to many, especially without having to turn on a computer. Reality trumps the virtual.

    And finally Thank you Dorthy Curran, it was an inspired vision worth preserving and displayed. Kudos to Dan Woog for alerting of things done in darkness.

  16. Pat Saviano

    If the only choice is between no mural and one that wraps, it seems to be a no brainer. The placement of it really should have been accounted for in the renovation plans before they were approved. Would it be possible to place it in the tunnel between Main St & Parker Harding? (Not sure who owns that.)

  17. Valerie DiPrato

    The mural embodies our town history and who we are today. My all time favorite item in the old library and I always felt gratitude to the artist and all who helped to develop such a beautiful piece. I often walked the mural with my kids and explained the stories of the tiles. What a lovely gift to the children of Westport. I am dismayed to hear that the original design was not prioritized in the renovation – how many more icons of Westport must we lose to people who don’t understand the sentiment? But here we are and I would rather see the mural in the library one way or the other. I can’t imagine another building where it could be viewed and appreciated by so many – even better if can be placed near the children’s library.
    I hope the original sponsors and artist reconsider their position. It would be a terrible loss to the town otherwise. If they do agree – I hope the custodians of the new library will respond in kind.

  18. Michael Schreder

    The Library’s response is nonsensical. Can we get a couple of adults in the room and resolve this – shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes….

  19. Bonnie Bradley

    I have a Bradley tile in this beautiful and unique work of art. It would be a travesty – and a slap in the face for all the Westporter’s who bought tiles, believing that future custodians of the Library would honor and protect it for ourselves as well as for future generations – I think that concept might have been suggested in the offering, for contributing financially to its creation. And, believe it or not, at the time it was actually very expensive per tile for many in town who purchased one… to honor or remember people they loved or events and places special to them. I absolutely second the comment by David Meth (above).

    The present attitude that “it can’t be done” is a careless and cruel reaction from the powers that be. If the installation means rounding a corner so be it, so long as the installation can be achieved without harming the tiles.

    This important, unique piece of history should not be hustled aside simply because it is too much trouble for those presently in charge of the Library to deal with. In fact, with all the talent Westport brags of, it should be “no problem.”

    I hope that the lauded Westport Historical Society steps forward to support the re-installation of this important treasure. Speak up!

    • Bonnie, I’m not sure why you think the library “powers that be” are “careless and cruel.” They were the ones who suggested rounding the corner. It’s the artist, and two others who developed the original mural, who are opposed to that idea.

  20. A river goes around corners too, so I would be glad to have our “River of Names” installed near the Children’s area where we can all see it up close. I love the tile of Little Toot and Rabbit Hill. I thank Dorothy and Betty and Marion for trying to protect the original concept, but at this point it would be GREAT NEWS to hear that it will be reinstalled on the L shaped wall. Sounds as though it’s possible. A big toot to all of you for trying to solve the problem! Little Toot’s sister 😉

  21. Michael Calise

    Divide it up into sections and create a new theme which will allow ongoing additions throughout the library and other public places if opportunities for the continuation of the new theme develop

  22. Lynn Brear

    I was introduced to the historical tile wall 19 years ago when our daughter’s family first moved to Westport. The library was always a delight but a special visit always included “reading the wall.” At the same time 19 years ago our own home town (Walnut Creek, CA) was grappling with how to fund the renovation and updating of our town library. I sent a photo with a description of the wonderful Westport River of Names as a possible solution for fundraising (our town used other methods). The Westport Library near the children’s area is such an appropriate placement for the River of Names. It is something to be seen and enjoyed and is an important learning tool about the rich history of Westport. Digital only just doesn’t cut it.

  23. “We planned to have the right number of fire exists, but we just ended up without any place for them,” said noboby.

    Architects and designers work from mandates given them by boards, who are custodians of their constituents’ desires. There was clearly purposeful misdirection by the board in this case, as anticipated by the stakeholders two years ago. That they would ignore them, and their documented concerns, shows pure bullying.

    They just didn’t just discover missing a 24′ wall any more than they (some of the same people, in fact) “forgot” to have day care at the Y. Their latest PR spin is just that, with the hope they can outlast it (like they did with the Y.)

    Again, the renovation will be fanstastic. But don’t we all wish there were some local institutions left we could trust? Or how about boards that didn’t treat their donors and stakeholders as idiots to push around. – Chris Woods

  24. Wendy Batteau

    I am a member of the Library, Museum and Arts Committee of the RTM. We were not approached to fund moving the mural. In any case, I don’t see any reason why removing it is a better solution than having it turn a corner. Is the mural not part of the Westport Arts Collection? (if not, it should be.)

  25. Susan Siegelaub Katz

    Hang it outside the children’s library, for heaven’s sake! Don’t you know that rivers turn corners all the time? It’s called meandering.

  26. Trish Leavitt

    It would be great to be near the children’s section, but is there a natural place on this mural to cut it in half without cutting any individual tiles in half. It really sounds like this was not planned or thought out very well, which is very sad for the donors. I hope they can figure out how to make it work. It is such an amazing legacy.

  27. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Have they finished tiling the rest rooms yet?
    Might kill two birds w/one stone. Recycling at its best.

  28. I’m shocked. Shocked to learn that what separates the River of Names from a new home is a few thousand dollars. Where’s the candy jar? I’m ready to help it find new home. Now where will that new home be?

  29. The River of Names depicts the history of Westport beautifully. It should hang in a public place where everyone can see it. I don’t think outside of the Children’s Library on the third floor of the building gets as much traffic as it should, and dividing it in two would diminish the impact of the original concept.

    Town Hall has several long walls that would serve the purpose beautifully. It would not be necessary to demolish an existing wall. A new wall could be built right in front of one, strong enough to hold the tiles.

    And having the mural in Town Hall would emphasize the history of the town (until 1997).

    • Elizabeth Thibault

      The children’s library is vibrant AND busy! So many children attend the programs the library delivers, on a daily and weekly basis! The librarians there are so knowledgeable and helpful, and are some of the most delightful and personable individuals you’ll ever have the pleasure of knowing. They cater to both young and older children, hosting activities such as song and story times for younger kids, to chess and robotics activities for older kids. Finally, many of the community rooms and meeting spaces are up on the third floor, where there is natural light coming in from the windows and overhead. (At least before the renovation there was, and with all the new windows added, I’m guessing this will continue to be the case.) I guarantee, there’s all kinds of traffic that would see this beautiful mural in this location, and who would delight in all the little details that reveal themselves, the longer you peruse it.

  30. John F. Suggs

    I am relieved to learn that the River of Names has not been destroyed. Thank goodness!

    I am troubled though by the Library’s clumsy attempt to place all the blame squarely on these three women and “hang them” out in public on their own. Have they been challenging to work with? Of course. Show me an artist who isn’t. But Mr. Bruce and Mr. Harmer, news flash – neither of you are 100% a joy to work with either. Frankly, no one is. Especially when undertaking such a huge project like the Library transformation. Everyone and their dog is a critic. In large part because the Library is such an important and deeply personal space for the whole town. This project touches all of us on a powerful emotional level.

    So, should the Library have done more, in advance, to work with these women who sought over two years ago to ensure the appropriate rehanging of the mural? Yes. But should the women have done more as well? You bet. I remember watching, from the sidelines, the original attempts at dialogue back then. One of the things that jumped out to me was just how quickly the three “lawyered up.” This early legal action on their part brought in an unfortunate adversarial tone right from the start. And I watched as both sides almost immediately dug in. Genuine collaboration amidst an environment of mutual goodwill and trust was the first casualty. And it only got worse from there.

    The Library’s written plans for this beloved art work safe transition throughout the project either did not exist or, if it did, was not freely shared. Rather the library instead ultimately took a “just trust us” position and plowed ahead. But trust has to be earned and maintained. It is very hard to regain once it is lost. For example: Did the library ever seriously develop a plan to rehang the mural on a single wall to display it the way it was designed to be viewed? If so, why has that option been kept under wraps throughout the last two years. If not, why not?

    Further, the public rollout of this part of the new library yesterday, I think everyone will agree, was mismanaged. I couldn’t tell if it was so ham handed due to hubris or incompetence. Probably a bit of both combined with the all too often simple unintended consequences of the vagaries of life. (I have $5 that says someone at the Library was either out sick yesterday or otherwise unavailable.). No organization purposely dismisses and discounts their longest supporters, friends and donors like the library did yesterday with this announcement. No one is that tone deaf. No one.

    So there is plenty of blame to go around for both sides.

    But now lets “repair the damage”.

    Should there have been a wall built to hang the mural on a single wall? Absolutely! But, sadly, it appears it wasn’t done.

    So now everyone needs to figure out an another “next best” option. It sounds like the L Shape wall is the best alternative. So I will support it as long as the Library firsts publicly owns its role in this fiasco and stops attempting to place all the blame on these three women. Do they have a role, sure. But the Library has much more power and thus more responsibility for fixing it. I am sure a genuine and heartfelt public apology by the library first to the three women and then to all the donors and the community would go a long way towards bringing us together.

    And bringing us together is the key, primary role of a library. At least that was what I was always taught by the librarians of my childhood!

  31. Lucie Muns

    This mural Deserves a place of honor for all to enjoy Westport’s great heritage and to the people who made it great. Everyone is so over-digitized and I for one do not hold to the theory that people will actually stop to view it. It would be a shame.

  32. The decision made by the three folks in command was terribly flawed and did not take into consideration the original intent of the tile mural. Speaking for myself, I purchased a tile not only to help the library but to have something my children could always look at and would be at the library for at least a generation or two.
    This committee committed a fraud on Westport and the citizens who donated to the cause, and should be held accountable for their actions.
    If anyone wants to start a legal action to rectify this fraud, please let me know and I will gladly donate to the cause.

  33. Bart Shuldman

    Unbelievable. The library screws up by not planning the space for the wall and then screws up again by only asking 3 people? 06880 would have been a great venue to get more input and maybe, just maybe, the tiles would be on a wall with a ‘river bend’.


    Bart Shuldman

  34. Jack Doran

    The whole point of the Library transformation is out with the old, in with the new. The “River of Names” has become a white elephant. Personally I think it now belongs elsewhere (like the Historical Society, Town Hall, or perhaps Senior Center).

  35. If this is now the voting venue, here’s one for putting it on any library wall that will hold it…bend be damned.

  36. Phillip Perri

    The planners/architects certainly screwed up by not incorporating the wall in the design. They had 30,000 reasons to know it was important and should have been. Ok,so their bad. That said, the real question is why did they “ask” at all? It should have been obvious what the answer was going to be. Should have just put it up and begged forgiveness afterward. $30,000 blown so far….how much more to placate 3 unrealistic, stubborn people? Who “owns” this piece anyway? Put the damn thing up and stop the insanity please.

    • More than 3 people, Mr. Perri. Lots more. Just look at how many have already commented on Dan’s blogs. All those who contributed to the wall “own” it. All those who walked by and admired it “own” it.

      • Phillip Perri

        Bobbie: All due respect, people contributed to the library, the library owns the wall. Just like the library owns the brick memorial walkway people contributed to. But who “owns” the $30,000 +++ this stupidity will finally cost? All of Westport, that’s who.

  37. Annelise McCay

    I am in agreement with Jayne Mauborgne,
    My parents donated funds the last rebuild, for family names on the tiles & walkway bricks.
    My father is no longer with us, he was so proud & excited when they were installed, and happy to share it with us. Thinking it would become part of history.
    This underminds the trust of community members who donate to projects like this.
    If the new build made plans to preserve it and approvals went through, with that promised, then what went wrong in the planning?
    Very disappointing, & rather deceptive.
    Digital is a sad alternative.
    Creative art work should be respected & valued.
    People will re-consider donating to projects like these in the future if they are only disposable and not really valued.
    Annelise McCay

  38. Bonnie Bradley

    Sorry, Dan, not actually living in Westport for 20 years, I plead ignorance of some of the nuances, the chain of command and enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for it’s re-installation, if you will. At this point I can only know what I read above and, sorry, misread that comment. In any event, the safety and re-installation of the mural should be everyone’s goal. I can only frame any dismissal of that importance by anyone as careless and cruel.

    I believe the mural belongs to the people of Westport and to those who contributed with their love and money to it’s creation. Their voices should carry the day.