The WPA in New Canaan: ‘Fantasy and Beauty’


The next time you visit South, East or West School, seek them out.

They hang high and proud in each of our three public elementary schools. Their vibrant colors and scenes virtually burst from the walls with playful images that spark creativity and imagination for the hundreds of students passing by them every day, perhaps unaware of their rich history—not only in New Canaan, but in the United States as well.

This Ralph Lewis Nelson mural hangs at West School.

This Ralph Lewis Nelson mural hangs at West School.

And had it not been for a few key New Canaanites, these treasures might have been lost forever.

The paintings were originally commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, a Depression-era government program developed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative. From 1935 to 1943 the WPA created jobs for 8 million U.S. citizens for their public works projects ranging from highways, buildings and bridges to smaller projects that involved music, literary works and art.

One area artist was Wilton resident Ralph Lewis Nelson, best known for his collaboration with James Montgomery Flagg for the definitive caricature of Uncle Sam used in the iconic “I Want You” military recruiting posters. Nelson was commissioned to create works of art to be displayed in public buildings throughout the area, including several murals that originally hung in New Canaan’s Center School from 1934 until the school’s closing in 1983.

Gail Mann taught at Center from 1977 until its closing. Her first-grade classroom featured Nelson’s murals, and she was able to incorporate them into her daily activities.

Classic Syd Greenberg photo of Genevieve Stone's classroom at Center School, circa-1970. One of Ralph Nelson's murals, currently on display at West School,  is visible on the wall.

Classic Syd Greenberg photo of Genevieve Stone’s classroom at Center School, circa-1970. One of Ralph Nelson’s murals, currently on display at West School, is visible on the wall.” Credit: Syd Greenberg

“I loved the murals,” Mann told “I thought they were perfect for 1st graders … There was fantasy and beauty in them. I thought looking at them encouraged the imagination. I did use them to encourage writing and to encourage the children to write about what they imagined when looking at them using their senses.”

When Center School was torn down, the murals were saved and stored at the old Saxe Junior High School, now the Schoolhouse Apartments at 156 South Ave. (back then it was New Canaan Public Schools’ administrative headquarters). There they remained for years, forgotten and neglected, until Betty Branch stepped in.

“I was involved in the League of Women’s Voters and we met on a monthly basis and I got to know Betty Branch really well,” recalled former New Canaan resident Sandy Dwenger. “She did some administrative work in the superintendent’s office, and was cleaning out closets and throwing stuff out and she found some rolled up oil paintings that were part of the WPA Project.”

Branch, a member of the New Canaan Historical Society and patron of the arts, sought out potential donors to restore the murals. One day she approached Dwenger—a mother of two—with a sponsorship opportunity she might wish to consider.

"Stories for Boys and Girls" by Ralph Lewis Nelson. This mural hangs at East School.

“Stories for Boys and Girls” by Ralph Lewis Nelson. This mural hangs at East School.” 

“Our kids went to East School, and Betty was campaigning for money to restore these pieces of art and she showed me the pictures,” Dwenger recalled. “There was one with a boy who dreams of heroes in the books he was reading. And then there was one of a girl who was tucked up in bed. She had been reading also and had been dreaming about the stories she had been reading.”

Any indecision Dwenger might have had about sponsoring the restoration was laid to rest once her daughter Kendra saw the paintings.

“I picked up Kendy after school one day and she asked what I had,” Dwenger recalled. “I showed her and she said, ‘Oh that’s fabulous! Can we do those? Can we see something about them?’ Well, the kids got involved and we paid to have the two restored, which was really fun.”

A plaque at East School recognizing the Dwenger's sponsorship.

A plaque at East School recognizing the Dwenger’s sponsorship. Credit: Terry Dinan

When the elementary schools were expanded and renovated in the mid-1990s, the restored murals were installed for future generations to enjoy. The paintings the Dwenger family sponsored now hang in the East School library. Two more murals are located in the library at West. An additional two are located in the main lobby of South School. At the time of their installation, Mann was the Reading Specialist at South.

“Every time I walked by them it reminded me of Center School, my classroom and students.” Mann said. “I was thrilled to be ‘reunited.’ ”

4 thoughts on “The WPA in New Canaan: ‘Fantasy and Beauty’

  1. Great story, Terry! WPA projects are unique in US History — often hidden in plain site. Nearby, Norwalk has a big collection of WPA murals rescued and restored, on display in places like NCC and city hall.

  2. Terry,
    Thank you for researching and writing this article. As a fine arts scholar and former South School student, I was fascinated to learn of these murals. I hope to schedule an appointment to see all of them the next time I am in town.

  3. WPA art was distributed throughout New Canaan offices. Sponsoring groups would ‘adopt’ a particular painting and finance it’s restoration. The old Town Hall had five or six paintings lining it’s halls, one is hung at their Elm Street offices, and a large mural is on display in the High School library. Once Town Hall renovations are complete, the original pieces will be returned.

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