Long-Absent Stamford Depression-Era Mural Finds Way Back Home

John Varamo The World Outside by James Daugherty Stamford Connecticut Economic Development Stamford Arts and Culture
John Varamo in front of "The World Outside"

Stamford Advocate 11/4/19: It took about 50 years, but one of Stamford’s most historic paintings is finally back home.

“The World Outside,” a Depression-era mural by James Daugherty that hung inside Stamford High School for 35 years, has found a new home inside the Tully Health Center.

The unlikely story of how it got there is full of twists and turns.

Daugherty completed the oil painting as part of a bigger mural in 1934, for the school’s music room. The work, which took him four months to complete, was commissioned by the federal government as part of the New Deal-agency Works Progress Administration.

The entire mural, comprised of seven individually-named paintings, is titled “Democracy In Education,” and was a 360-degree, 1,000-square-foot display inside the music room.

The imposing mural, which depicted more than 200 figures taking part in different activities, from sports and music to industry and scientific endeavors, stood at the high school untouched until 1970.

That was the year the school was renovated, and the mural was cut into 30 pieces by workers and left in a dumpster, according to records of the time. If it wasn’t for a former high school student who spotted them, the murals may have been lost to history.

 

That student was Frank Bowne, who ended up bringing the artworks to a local New York conservator, Hiram Hoelzer.

It took Hoelzer about 16 years to work on the restoration of the pieces. He restored six of the seven paintings, since one was destroyed beyond repair once the murals were taken down. Hoelzer sold two of them, entitled “Comedy and Tragedy” and “American Rhythm,” to private California collectors.

Ten years after the murals were removed from the high school, Stamford officials learned about their existence and discovered they were in Hoelzer’s possession. They asked that the pieces be returned.

At the time, the four remaining murals were assessed at a value of about $1.2 million. Hoelzer informed city officials that he would return the paintings, but only after being reimbursed for his restorations, and being paid the value of the art.

He asked for $1.4 million.

Hoelzer didn’t get his wish, but he did get $400,000, the amount the city agreed to pay in 2002 to acquire the four pieces of art.

Since then, all four works have been restored, through funding from grants and donations. Tim Curtin, former special assistant to the mayor, was instrumental in acquiring funding for the murals, said John Varamo, program manager for Stamford Arts & Culture.

Daugherty’s “New England Tradition” is now in the Ferguson Library, “School Activities” is on loan at the University of Connecticut-Stamford campus and “Sports” is back at Stamford High School.

The fourth mural, “The World Outside,” was left for last. The restoration of the piece, which measures 30 feet wide and 8.5 feet tall, was the most expensive to fund because it is the largest of the murals.

Curtin had begun to raise money for the work, but it was only when Varamo got involved that the restoration was paid for and completed.

Varamo was able to find funding from the Friends of James Daugherty Foundation and from the city.

This year, “The World Outside” was fully restored by ICA Art Conservation in Cleveland, Ohio.

John Varamo said he was thrilled to see Daugherty’s work finally on view again in Stamford.

“We’re ecstatic that the final mural that has been in the city’s possession has been restored,” he said.

Ben Wade, senior vice president of strategy and marketing at Stamford Health, said the Tully Center is a perfect place to display the art.

“We have thousands of patients and community members who come through there every day,” he said.

The entire mural that once stood inside Stamford High School included over 200 figures. Daugherty used local teachers and students as models for the murals.

The work was meant to be an uplifting piece showing Americans helping each other during the economic crisis, while showing working-class struggles. Daugherty, who was born in North Carolina in 1887, lived in Wilton for much of his life, and passed away at the age of 87 in Boston.

 

“This mural, all of these murals, they’re a part of Stamford’s culture and history,” Varamo said.

He called the painting an “awe-inspiring work of art.”

“The World Outside” is valued at $210,000.

The work of art is mounted about nine feet high in the Tully Center. It’s been on display for just over a month, and Varamo said many people have said they remember seeing it when it was in the high school.

“I hope that this brings joy and pride to the residents of Stamford and I hope that everyone who visits the Tully Health Center just takes a moment and looks up,” Varamo said.