Grand murals that have immortalized the history of Gloucester’s maritime culture in the historic Saunders House will be getting a facelift. 

The Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library is planning to have conservator Lisa Mehlin of Essex restore the Saunders House murals. These oil-paint murals were done in 1934 by renowned artist Frederick L. Stoddard with the assistance of Howard Curtis as part of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.

“Restoring these significant WPA murals depicting Gloucester’s origins is not only our responsibility but our great privilege. They are community artistic treasures and historically significant features of the Saunders House,” said Mern Sibley, president of the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library’s Board of Trustees, in a prepared statement. “This project will preserve these unique works for historic study and enjoyment by residents and visitors.”

Mehlin confirmed on Tuesday that she will begin the first phase of the project late next week. She said this phase is expected to take approximately 10 weeks, with six weeks on site at the Saunders House and the balance of the work being done in her Essex studio.

The project will be funded through the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library’s corporate funds. 

According to a press release from the library, the murals, titled “Scenes of the Region,” depict maritime culture against a backdrop of the agrarian life that supported the early settlement of Gloucester. The murals capture the activity of the busy working harbor with views of the distant rocky shoreline, the city, Rocky Neck, and Ten Pound Island. 

Also featured along the house’s staircase is a simplified representation of Dogtown Common and old “Whale’s Jaw” granite formation, along with other colorful scenes offering glimpses of what life was like in Gloucester’s early days. 

Mehlin, who holds a Master of Arts Conservation, has 17 years of experience in the conservation of oil paintings for government agencies, private institutions, and individual clients in the U.S. and Canada.

The project will be completed in two phases with the first being consolidation, ensuring that all original mural pigment is still attached to the plaster. The second phase will include the visual restoration process. 

After securing the pigment to the plaster, paints will be used to carefully tone back any white gaps where the paint flaked away, allowing the original design to shine through once again.

The Saunders House was built in 1764 by Thomas Saunders, a prosperous merchant and a representative to the Massachusetts General Court. At the time, it was considered one of the grandest houses in Gloucester and Boston’s North Shore.  In 1884 Samuel Sawyer deeded it for a public library and it became the permanent home of the Sawyer Free Library.

“As stewards of our city’s library, we are committed to the Saunders House’s preservation, as it is still the anchor of the Sawyer Free Library, rich with history and purpose,” added Sibley. “It is appropriate that this  mural restoration project is the first of many as we move forward in realizing a reimagined, renovated, and expanded Sawyer Free Library, one that is worthy of our heritage and our future.” 

More information about the Saunders House’s mural project and the concept design for the 2025 Sawyer Free Library and Saunders House, visit sawyerfreelibrary.org.

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford may be contacted at 978-675-2705, tbradford@gloucestertimes.com or on Twitter at TayBradford97.

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