Dedication, invention, perseverance lead to a
surprising and happy ending for the murals of Fenimore Cooper
[Editor’s note: We’ve been following the story of the James Fenimore Cooper murals in Mamaroneck doomed to a future hidden from view or lost forever to school reconstruction. There’s good news to report this week, and we asked Carol Bradshaw Akin, Board Member and former President of the Mamaroneck Historical Society, to give us a first-person, on-the-ground report. It’s a wonderful story with a happy ending — something nice for a change — and a real connection between Otsego and Westchester counties. Thank you, Carol!]
There’s good news to report, thanks to the superhuman efforts of Mamaroneck Historical Society co-chairs John Pritts and Gail Boyle, who have turned their lives upside down over the past two months to save eight murals of James Fenimore Cooper’s scenes. from “Leatherstocking Tales” painted 81 years ago. Ninth-grade classes at Mamaroneck Junior High raised funds from 1936 to 1941, then hired artists from Yale Art School, one of whom, Mimi Jennawine, was a graduate of Mamaroneck High. His other works include a painting in the Smithsonian – and most other muralists went on to become prominent artists.
With contributions from GoFundMe and a few generous major donors, the necessary figure was reached, and John and Gail got started. They embarked on this near impossible task, researching information and contacts, researching mural removal companies (found one), hiring an art restorer, writing and tracking hundreds of emails, spending hours and days on phone calls, tried (unsuccessfully) to get in touch with school board and superintendent, (eventually found school facilities manager who was supportive and cooperative!), drove everywhere from Stamford , CT, to Brooklyn to pick up conservation supplies needed for the business, which also included huge 2-foot x 12-foot tubes on which to roll the murals. And then once the work started, they supervised all the work in high school every day.
After the removal process began, our Historical Society Board of Directors received an email update from the high school that the Murals Removal Society and Art Conservator had told them that the glue holding the murals to the wall was just as tough as it was 81 years ago. The deletion process has become extremely slow. It was the first week of April – and the school board gave them an extension until April 7 (from April 1). John called from the school to warn that there was no way at that time to remove more than four of the murals.
But – the next day the removal company brought in a second team who worked through the night – and miraculously managed to save all eight of them, removing seven safely! The eighth mural is in a science classroom with gas and water pipes too close to build scaffolding. He is now fully protected behind plexiglass, and will be behind a wall in the school’s new Tech Lab.
The mural, “Travels and European Influences 1826-1833” by Mimi Jennewein, will have a sign on the Tech Lab wall noting the mural behind it. Maybe in the future it could be recovered.
We are all thrilled with what they were able to do!, John wrote again, describing the complicated process, after completion:
“The mural demolition team was PHENOMENAL! Led by Josh Lattrell of ACA Environmental Services, Inc., the team solved problems through endless challenges. They invented special platforms for working in tight spaces. They determined what worked for the removal of each mural based on the surface of the wall and the strength of the adhesive. The 81-year-old glue used to stick the canvas to the walls looked like cement. The moving team picked up a pace, synchronizing their efforts while standing on scaffolding under the suspended tube, which wrapped the mural up to the ceiling, while carefully scraping the glue, inch by inch, to release the paint mural.
We leave the GoFundMe link on our website (mamaroneckhistoricalsociety.org) as there will be a huge cost to restore and hang the murals in local public buildings in Larchmont and Mamaroneck. John explained: “The seven murals which have been successfully removed will require a range of restoration services. One of them was extremely brittle, leading to paint loss. The canvas of other murals was thin or torn in places, requiring repairs. This will mean another significant cost for repairs. Although this is not the result we hoped for, we are confident that everyone involved in the removal effort has worked beyond expectations to preserve all of the murals. coming off the wall.
After being in the cafeteria at Junior High, which later became part of Mamaroneck High School, for 81 years, having had classrooms built in the huge cafeteria in the 90s, obscuring the murals from being seen at distance, the murals will eventually hang in public buildings in Mamaroneck and Larchmont. In the future, the whole community will be able to see and appreciate these magnificent historic murals and America’s first true novelist, James Fenimore Cooper.