(Recycled from February 2010)
I’ve written before about one of Fall River’s hidden secrets, namely the John Mann murals in the former Matthew J. Kuss Middle School at 217 Rock Street. John Mann was commissioned under the Works Progress Administration “Federal Art in New England” project in 1936. He painted a history of Fall River in a series of murals all along the walls of the auditorium of what was then BMC Durfee’s Technical Building.
These incredible murals are comprised in 3 sets depicting a different era. The first set is 6 panels of Fall River’s Indian history. Every figure in each of the panels was posed for by a live model.
The Revolutionary and Civil War days are featured in the second set of panels along the north wall and again models posed for each figure. Supposedly, the Civil War dresses were obtained from Fall River families.
The murals along the rear wall of the auditorium bring the story up to the (1936) “present” as they delineate modern cotton mills of the city.
I first viewed these in the spring of 2007, and again in 2008 and 2009. I’m grateful to Nancy Mullen, Principal of Kuss Middle School for her continued accommodations to my unannounced requests.
A pamphlet published in 1940 describes the Mann murals in detail and contains brief information on the city’s history.
What is noticeably absent in Mann’s murals is the “golden period” of Fall River – the 1870’s to 1890’s. No drawings of the huge and profitable granite and red brick mills and its culturally diverse working class, the town’s growth, the steamships or railways, and the further enrichment of the founding families. However, by the mid-1930’s, when this wonderful work was done, Fall River had been on the decline for more than two decades. Had there been a continuation of these murals depicting Fall River to the present day, they surely would be viewed with sad eyes and sorrowful hearts for a city of once what had been as contrasted to now what is.
Nonetheless these are remarkable murals and of significant value to Fall River’s history. The structure on Rock Street was abandoned and left in “sleep mode” in June of 2009 when Kuss Middle School moved into new quarters.
In a conversation with Tom Coogan, Chief Operating Officer, Fall River Public Schools, he told me that the School Committee is securing funding from the State for the Morton School but those students may be relocated back to 217 Rock Street depending upon what the Committee decides. If they decide not to keep it, the structure will revert to city ownership and become the city’s responsibility, but that decision is “4 years down the road”. Meanwhile “old Kuss” remains in the custody of Fall River Schools. I was pleased to hear him speak of what cold weather does to interior paint and that there is sufficient heat in the auditorium to protect those murals. Tom was also nice enough to send me a 6 page document describing in detail each mural itself as well as how the entire project developed.
So what will the future hold for this hidden treasure? It is possible the structure could be demolished or converted to office space (the courthouse is just across the street). Whatever the future disposition of the Mann Murals, one can only hope they will not only be preserved but given public access so residents and visitors alike can marvel at this wonderful and historic epic work of art.