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 DANVERS? Why 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.
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.