Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

The various initiatives of the Works Progress Administration made their mark on Salem during the Depression: substantive work on Greenlawn Cemetery and the Salem Armory was completed, wharves and docks were built or rebuilt all around Salem Harbor, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created along Derby Street. Many historic structures in Salem were measured and photographed under the aegis of the Historic American Building Survey, for which I am grateful nearly every day. I’m sure there were more infrastructural improvements implemented with federal funds in Salem in the 1930s, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to lose myself in the massive archives of the New Deal!  There is a conspicuous absence of federally-funded art in Salem however: no murals in the Post Office or City Hall illustrating the city’s dynamic and dramatic history. This absence is conspicuous because Massachusetts in general, and the North Shore in particular, is home to some notable New Deal murals, commissioned by various Federal cultural agencies to embellish public spaces with uplifting, patriotic, accessible American scenes while simultaneously providing unemployement for artists. There are amazing murals in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, and in Natick, Lexington, and Arlington, and here in Essex County, in Gloucester City Hall, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, the Topsfield Public Library, and the Ipswich Post Office. Moreover, there were several Salem artists who painted murals for the WPA elsewhere–but not in the city of their birth or residence. Why?






Umberto Romano, “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the US Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts, photograph by David Stansbury, and Hollis Holbrook,” John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians”, US Post Office, Natick, photograph by Thomas Cortue, both part of the joint Smithsonian National Postal Museum and National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, “Indians at the Post Office: New Deal-Era Murals”; Aiden Lassell Ripley, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, US Post Office, Lexington; and Charles Allen Winter’s “Protection of the Fisheries”,  and “Education” , two of 6 murals in Gloucester City Hall that have been recently restored.

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but this weekend I was engaging in my semi-regular weekend fantasy-shopping-on-1stdibs session and I came across a study painting by Dunbar Beck for a mural entitled The Return of Timothy Pickering which eventually embellished the interior of the Danvers Post Office, where it remains to this day. And I thought to myself: why the hell was the mural commissioned for DANVERSWhy didn’t it come to Salem? Timothy Pickering is one of the most famous native sons of Salem, his house is here, and his mural should be here too. Danvers is the former Salem Village, and was long part of Salem, but still this mural clearly portrays Salem Town and harbor.



Dunbar Beck, Study Painting for the Danvers Post Office mural “The Return of Timothy Pickering”, currently available from Renaissance Man Antiques on 1stdibs.

So, why no murals of Salem’s earliest settlements, famous vessels, lively port, sea captains’ mansions, or Witch Trials on the walls of public building downtown?  Well there would have had to be some visual reference to 1692, and that was hardly an uplifting American episode that could be used to raise spirits during the Depression. That’s the curse of 1692, which manifests itself time and time again. Or maybe there was no place for one in Salem’s relatively new Post Office or venerable City Hall. But I for one would like to see a simplistic scene of North America’s first elephant stepping on Salem soil somewhere around town.

18 responses to “Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

  • Shelby Hypes

    Old Bett was on Salemite Joseph Crowninshield’s ship….but landed in New York. 🙂


  • daseger

    You’re right, Shelby! I had to go back and reread my own post: https://streetsofsalem.com/2011/04/13/crowninshields-elephant/ But I don’t have to correct my sentence as the elephant eventually disembarked in Salem.

  • John Matthew Barlow

    This is something I spent a lot of time wondering when we lived in Salem, in particular inside the Post Office. I always thought the walls at either end of the great hall in there were crying out for WPA murals. And, interestingly, the New Deal Era Courthouse/Post Office in Florence, AL, which has a great hall lobby in a similar manner, has WPA murals at either end of it. I also wondered, though, if there was really space in either Old City Hall or New City Hall in Salem, or really, anywhere beyond the Post Office for such a mural.

    • daseger

      Hi Matthew! I agree with you about the Post Office–I’m wondering if there is a political reason, but not really reading or willing to delve into local politics in the 1930s and Salem got lots of other projects. How do you ascertain cultural resistance?

      • John Matthew Barlow

        Interesting question. Florence, AL, is an interesting counterpoint to Salem, then, actually the entire Muscle Shoals region is, as it was largely rescued from deep poverty by the TVA and WPA. The WPA built half of the university, an industrial site on TVA lands, etc. And the murals.

        You hinted at the legacy of the Witch Trials, no? And the Salem Waterfront scene in Danvers. I suppose one would have to dig through the WPA files and the local newspaper archives to get at those stories.

      • daseger

        Yeah. I’m not doing that. This is a blog!

  • Bob Albert

    I can’t say why there were no WPA murals in Salem, but can venture a guess why Timothy Pickering would have a mural in Danvers. He lived in the James Putnam Jr. house on Summer St. in Danvers while serving as U.S. Senator.

  • Nelson Dionne

    This topic is a good example of why exploring Salem’s history is so fascinating The more you look the more mystery’s pop up. Among the missing are the records oft all of the hundreds of groups that
    existed in Salem. .Also missing are any traces of the businesses that
    were located in Salem.. Also rarely seen are any trace of WWII Home Front paper. Everybody had a Ration Card during the war, yet, they are super rare now.
    The more I gather,the more I realize that history MUST BE GATHERED
    as it is made !
    The failure of our historical groups to do this has resulted in massive
    black holes in our local history.
    One of the newest problems sure to cause problems if the way people
    die, and no obituary’s or death notices are published by the survivors.
    That subject is worthy of a book.
    Just a few thoughts.

  • Glenn McDonald

    Here’s my take… My mother was born at 67 1/2 Essex ST (at the end of the driveway beside, and just behind the Narbonne House). She remembered the Post Office being on the SW corner of Essex and St Peter Streets when she was a little girl. I seem to remember my grandmother telling me that that the “new” was built around the time of the Salem tercentenary, which would, of course, make it predate the depression art era.

    Apropos of nothing in particular, there was an earlier Post Office, still standing, I believe, next to the old police station on Central Street. Both structures appear to have been repurposed as law offices. and are located next to the parking lot behind Central Fire Dept. HQ. Unfortunately, I’ve misplaces my Polk’s 1909 Salem City Directory, and cannot give street addresses at this time.



    • daseger

      Interesting Glenn–There is a former Post Office on New Derby Street, now repurposed, but I never knew about
      the one on the corner of Essex and St. Peters.

  • mosalik

    Search “Town of Salem” in google. It’s a cool murder mystery game!

  • az1407t

    I suspect that each city and town qualified for a certain amount of funds and that Salem chose to use its share for other projects, rather than murals. It would have been nice to have some murals, though.

  • Nathan Redshield

    Salem was a very Republican town then, that’s why, and had principles. Medford was somewhat Republican but Medford’s snout was one of the first in the trough when federal largesse was passed out. Today of course there is nothing Trump in Saldem…

  • Nathan Redshield

    To add, Medford’s Post Office has a mural on the celebrated Triangle Trade with its heroic portrait of a Negro slave. But some of the descendants of Medford slaves still live in town and insist the mural stays…go see it while you can. The Natick P O mural suffered severe water damage.

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