1941 mural being restored in New London City Hall
New London — A group of local artists is working to restore an 80-year-old mural inside City Hall, a task that has them combining skills in art, history and a bit of science.
Leading the group is Felicia Stevens, owner of the Drunken Palette, an art studio and supply shop on State Street, who said she was excited by the challenge of not only restoring a painting that covers the four walls of a room on City Hall's third floor, but researching and using resources from her studio to identify and match the colors of the original paintings.
The work is underway in the City Council Anteroom, a room adjacent to the Council Chambers used for smaller meetings and as space for the council to meet in executive session. Historically, it also hosted Board of Education meetings. Each wall has a painting depicting a different New London scene — Ocean Beach Park, the Coast Guard Academy, the Old Town Mill, Nathan Hale School and a whaling ship and submarine.
As with any painting job, Stevens said 90% of the work thus far has involved prep work, documenting the paintings with photos and identifying areas of the 100-year-old walls in need of repairs. Some areas have sustained water damage through the years. Certain areas would be patched and repainted, matching and honoring the original artist's work.
"We've been diagnosing the space, not just the visual aspect, but the materials used," Stevens said.
This week, she worked alongside Justin Grabel, who opened Credabel Coral Lab on Bank Street, who has tackled some of the research and documentation work associated with the restoration. He said the art had undergone several previous restorations.
The team, hired by the city as part of the $3 million overall restoration project underway at City Hall, performed a detailed section-by-section analysis of the murals, documenting the art with photos as the work proceeded. Those photos were hung beneath the original paintings for reference when they proceed to the final phase of painting.
Stevens' team includes Drunken Palette employees Richard Rampersad, Adam Campos and Tori Thompson.
The original painting is the work of D. Walter Blake, former city sign painter and head of the city's traffic control division. Blake, according to a Day article from 1941, had attended the Rhode Island School of Design and New York School of Applied Arts and had painted stage scenery in New York for three years before coming to the city to accept a position playing cornet at the Garde Theatre. He later worked for the New London Sign Co., painting advertising signs before taking a job with the city in the sign painting division.
"Mr. Blake spent less than a month painting the murals, utilizing a period of time when his ordinary duties made the least demand on his time," Day reporter George MacDougall wrote in the 1941 article. "Much of the work was done after his working hours. The only expense to the city was the material used."
Stevens said the goal of the restoration is to honor the original artist.
Work in the anteroom is part of an overall makeover of City Hall that is being performed in phases. The Council Chambers have undergone plaster restoration work and repainting. A section of the mayor's office was removed to open up the lobby. Workers are preparing to resurface the 100-year-old original cork floor in the Council Chambers and audio and visual equipment is being upgraded and installed for council meetings. The elevator that had been down for repairs is working again.
The rest of the restoration work will continue later, with renovations of bathrooms and expansion of the clerk's vault, along with a new HVAC system.
Tom Bombria, the community and economic development project coordinator, who is overseeing the City Hall restoration work, said the Council Chambers should be ready for an unveiling in the coming month. The sitting City Council, first because of the broken elevator and later because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has yet to be seated in the newly revamped room.
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