Panorama of Bridgeton's History

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BRIDGETON, N.J. -

Bridgeton, a Cumberland County city steeped in history, was originally inhabited by the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. Some 300 years ago, European settler, Richard Hancock, built a sawmill in the area now known as Bridgeton.

Throughout its history, Bridgeton had transformed itself from a city whose economy was based on fishing, hunting, and agriculture to becoming an industrial powerhouse.

Then, in the 1980s, according to cityofbridgeton.com, “The city suffered an economic downturn ... with the loss of its remaining manufacturing sector jobs in glass and textiles.”

However, unbeknownst to many of Bridgeton’s citizens, a plethora of world-renowned and highly respected individuals have traveled through, worked, or lived in this once thriving city. Some of them have left an important historical mark on the town.

One of those people is printmaker, painter, sculptor, and teacher Ezio Martinelli, who left an enduring legacy for the residents of Bridgeton to hold near and dear to their hearts with an historical piece of art he created during the Great Depression known as the WPA Mural in the current Broad Street School.

Martinelli was an Italian-American who lived in North Jersey in the early 20th century. After a tragic incident involving his father, his family packed their bags and moved to Ventnor. He was a gifted artist who had the distinguished opportunity to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, Italy, at the age of 18.

After finishing his studies, he came back to South Jersey and began looking for work. However, it was difficult for him to find a job because, during the 1930s, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression.

To help the country pull out of financial deprivation and to help lower an unemployment rate that had climbed to 20 percent, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This program, which put approximately 8.5 million Americans to work, was part of the New Deal, which according to history.com, was Roosevelt’s plan to “to restore prosperity to Americans.”

The WPA hired mainly unskilled laborers to build bridges, schools, hospitals, roads, etc. There was another program instituted within the WPA called Federal Project Number One (Federal One). This ambitious program, which was lauded and defended by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, hired artists, musicians, actors, and writers.

Martinelli was one of the artists employed by Federal One and was commissioned to paint the mural, which is now located in the Bridgeton Broad Street School auditorium.

“The mural was originally in the library of the Broad Street School, which was then the high school,” says Flavia Alaya, retired professor, Ramapo College, and board president and founding director of the Center for Historic American Building Arts (CHABA).

Alaya is a modern-day renaissance woman with a wealth of knowledge on myriad topics, including writing, social ecology, artistry, history—and Martinelli.

“It’s a modernist mural with an historic narrative built into the imagery, but ... it’s not intended to be a human narrative,” Alaya explains. “It’s a narrative of place. It’s a narrative of objects. It’s a narrative of machinery and fields and trees and baskets full of tomatoes.”

“It represents the nail and iron works and the continuing production of glass and metal objects,” she continues. “It’s a very modernist panoply of what’s going on in Bridgeton historically from the outset. The beauty of that mural is that it’s absolutely filled with color.”

Martinelli’s work on the 23-foot-long mural was completed in 1941, but it’s a bit of a mystery of how he came up with the idea of what objects to represent in the mural.

“Unknown to us, or me, or the school district is who picked the subject matter,” said Larry Merighi, architect and founding partner of Manders Merighi Portadin Farrell Architects, LLC (MMPF Architects). “How much artistic license did Mr. Martinelli have? Did he interview people? Did he do the research? Or was there someone in the community … that he consulted with that spoke to the agrarian roots and then the industrial piece?”

Some of the objects of Bridgeton’s history that Martinelli chose to embellish in the mural are an iron foundry and pig iron, the Bridgeton Liberty Bell, a machine (probably made by the Ferracute Company), an American Revolutionary War cannon, agricultural products, and Hancock’s sawmill.

In 2014, MMPF Architects was commissioned to renovate the auditorium where the mural is now located and discovered that the historical piece of artwork needed to be restored. Holly Manders, architect and former employee with MMPF Architects, was the bellwether in doing the research in hopes of finding the perfect person to preserve the mural and bring it back to its natural splendor.

Through her extensive probing, Manders found esteemed conservator and preservationist Cassie Myers. “She chose me because the conservation of mural paintings is my expertise,” says Myers.

According to design.upenn.edu, Myers has been an UNESCO Conservation Research Fellow, has received a U.S. Capitol Historical Society Fellowship, and is currently a visiting scholar, thesis advisor, research associate, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, among the many other titles she has held throughout her illustrious career.

Myers overcame many obstacles while attempting to restore the mural. “There were technical challenges due to previous work on the mural,” Myers reveals. “In 1980, the mural was removed from the library wall, treated off-site and installed in the auditorium. As conservators, we aim to slow deterioration and protect the authenticity of the original work in the aged condition in which it arrives to us. In addition to previous treatment, irregular environmental conditions had promoted deterioration and caused extensive flaking paint.”

It took Myers six-weeks of meticulous labor to return the allure back to the mural.

“The color restoration ... was part of the stroke of genius of redoing this because it had lost a lot of its luster over the years,” says Alaya. “And [Cassie] Myers did a beautiful job of restoring the poppy, vibrant coloring.”

The significance of the WPA program in general, and of the Bridgeton Mural specifically is incalculable.

“I think the importance of the program … was that [the government] recognized that the arts are critical to society,” says Merighi. “I think a lot of people think of the arts as entertainment and it’s much more than that. Artists interpret, they’re commenting on the world we live in. I think it’s important to have the voice of artists.”

“I thought quite a lot about the New Deal era during the Great Depression, when the federal government funded artists to produce mural paintings, sculpture, music, literature, etc.,” says Myers. "These projects not only kept artists employed, but raised the national morale and contributed to society. As a result, important and beautiful work was produced in the country that spoke to its era. I always feel very fortunate to be able to contribute to preserving these works.”

The WPA “was just a miraculously sensitive, aware, awake, woke program,” says Alaya. “Because there’s so little that represents the city of Bridgeton visually, the only thing we have is this contemporary mural, now. To have a reflection of how the city saw itself or how the city was perceived in the 1930s during the Depression … I think is priceless.

“If we didn’t have that,” says Alaya, “how empty our perception of Bridgeton’s own self-awareness would be. The mural “gives you that visceral, visual solid sense of what it meant to be a living, breathing, producing, fecund, birth-giving kind of community. That’s what [Martinelli] captured.”

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