If Walls Could Talk: Maplewood Town Hall Murals

Apr 1, 2004

The story of Maplewood is all around us, in the array of houses that span three centuries, and in the ancient trees that predate our roads. But nowhere is that story more eloquently told than in the paintings that grace the main chamber of Maplewood’s Town Hall. Towering above the benches are nine magnificent murals illustrating the breadth of Maplewood history, from the Native Americans who lived in this valley in 1600 to a 1958 Fourth of July celebration.

Town Hall (or as it is prosaically named, the Municipal Building) was built in 1930-31, and the nine-foot-tall niches in the main chamber were designed to frame murals. The Great Depression forced the town to postpone their creation for almost thirty years.

In 1957, according to a contemporary newspaper report, Mayor Thomas Sweeney, announcing the project, said the murals “would make this great room one in which all citizens could take pride and from which pleasure and stimulation would flow.”

Typical of Maplewood, the project was not without its dissenters. One critic said that the murals would interrupt “the colonial simplicity of the room.” Another protested that the money should be spent on education. “Just what can the children and adults of Maplewood learn from murals that would be of any value?” she wrote.

Most people could see the value of it, however, and the citizens of Maplewood raised the money for the murals by private subscription. In the end, $10,000 was raised, and artist Stephen Juharos of Newark, a noted muralist, was awarded the commission. He was selected by a committee headed by Joseph V. Noble, a long-time Maplewood resident and member of the Durand-Hedden Board of Trustees. At the time, Mr. Noble was Vice Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Crowell Bausmith, a life-long Maplewood resident who was named Township Historian in December 2003, made it a priority to raise money to restore the murals to their original brilliance. Painted on Belgian linen canvas stretched on panels, the murals had become dirty, discolored and damaged by water.

The Murals Book Reprinted

On October 24, 2004 Durand-Hedden sponsored a celebration of the murals at Town Hall. Mr. Bausmith introduced a newly reprinted edition of “The Historical Murals of Maplewood,” a magnificent rendition of the original 1961 monograph by Joseph Noble with full-page color reproductions of the murals and essays about each. The books are $25 and may be purchased at the Durand-Hedden Country Store, at the Maplewood Library and at Millstone Lawn and Garden Store at Pierson’s Mill. Proceeds from book sales will be used to help fund the restoration.

The Durand-Hedden Association donated $2,500. Other fund-raising efforts over the next year included a raffle for a mixed-media painting by noted artist Vincent Nardone, and the sale of coffee mugs in several stores on Springfield Avenue and in Maplewood Village. The restoration work was estimated to cost at least $50,000 to $100,000 and was completed in 2007.

A Pictorial Chronology of Maplewood History

The selection of subject matter for the murals was the subject of much discussion in town in 1958 as artist Stephen Juharos researched and painted oil sketches for the final works.

In 1958, Mr. Juharos attended the Maplewood Fourth of July celebration “to catch the flavor and feel of the occasion in his sketch book,” the News-Record wrote. By this time, only a few months after his selection, the artist had already done a full-color sketch of the mural of 1779, depicting General George Washington visiting the Timothy Ball House on Ridgewood Road. This and the other oil sketches Mr. Juharos did are hung in the Township Committee meeting room just off the main chamber. A comparison with the final works shows some interesting changes in composition and detail.

The painting of the Timothy Ball house shows it in 1779. The portico and columns on the house as it appears today were added in about 1920, when the house was renovated by the developers of Washington Park.

One mural depicts Native American Indian Chief Tuscan c. 1600 returning from a successful deer hunt in an area near the present intersection of Tuscan Road and Valley Street.

The panel of artist Asher Brown Durand, a founder of the Hudson River School of painting, depicts him at work on a landscape in about 1840. Durand, whose brother Henry bought the Durand-Hedden House in 1812, was born in 1796 in what was then Jefferson Village. Durand’s paintings are in the collections of most major American museums.

Pierson’s Mill, built in 1831 and the family’s Greek Revival house built in 1843 are shown as they appeared in 1875. The business was owned and operated by six generations of the Pierson family until 2000.

Inventor Seth Boyden is the subject of another panel, c. 1860. He is shown looking at a bowl of strawberries, which he was famous for cultivating in Middleville (now the Hilton area). A steam engine, which he built, is shown pulling into the 1860 train station south of Baker Street.

The next mural is of James Ricalton, Maplewood’s first permanent schoolmaster, who is depicted c. 1883 conducting a class outside of the school, located where the main post office is today. The building served as the community’s school from 1870 to 1903.

Between 1920 and 1930, the town experienced a period of expansion, as shown in the next mural. In this decade, when most of the houses in town were built, the population increased from 5,000 to 21,000.

At the end of the room, above the Township Committee’s rostrum, is the largest mural, 10 feet square. It is a 1959 view of Maplewood and its surroundings as seen from the top of South Mountain Reservation above Wyoming Avenue. Maplewood includes 480 acres of the Reservation. New York City is seen in the distance.

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