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Public Art on South Campus: University of Massachusetts Lowell

Coburn Assembly Room, WPA-era Murals, Carroll Bill, 1934

mural of young people and landscapesThe murals on the upper wall of the Assembly Room in Coburn Hall were painted just at the inception of the Works Progress Administration in 1934. They illustrate the central role of education in society, and specifically, the tradition of education in the city of Lowell. The mural is composed of three panels or segments (the central and right segment visible from the Assembly Room; the left panel visible in the small adjacent study room). The right panel depicts the “outdoor” or communal activities of education: a choir singing the Lowell Teacher’s College school song, Girl Scouts playing basketball, and individuals of all ages learning through storytelling; all the activities in this panel are set against the backdrop of the city’s mills. The center panel depicts a young teacher surrounded by students; behind her are images of the city’s older schools (such as Dracut Academy and the Mammoth Road School)). Heraldic flags strung across the top of the central panel represent the countries of Lowell’s immigrant populations. Click image for a larger view.

Click image to enlarge.

The left panel depicts the “indoor” mural installation showing students drawing and painting and a sea battle of the eighteenth century in the upper left corneror individual areas of classroom study in the Arts and Sciences. The depiction of nature—trees, flowers, fish and fruits, are balanced by the depiction of human activities—a student painting, another working on a loom, and a third drawing on a chalkboard. Behind them is a map of the European, African, and Asian continents, with three additional students studying a globe. The backdrop in this panel reaches to the world beyond: with images of the Alhambra in Spain, the dome of Florence Cathedral, and the tower of Rouen Cathedral. The references to history conclude in the upper left corner with a “zesty sea fight of Revolutionary days.” Click image for a larger view.

The murals were painted by young Boston-area artists Carroll Bill, Richard V. Ellery, and Elmer W. Greene, Jr. The artists painted the scenes on canvases that were then adhered to the wall.

couples in formal clothing dancing
Upon completion, the murals were the pride and joy of the school. We see them in the background of this 1934 yearbook photograph of the junior prom.


Image courtesy Center for Lowell History.

man on scaffoldAt some point in the 1970s however, perhaps due to some water damage, the murals were painted over with two coats of beige paint and soon forgotten.

Research on Coburn Hall in 2015 reignited interest, and during the renovation of 2018, the murals were uncovered and restored. The empty or beige areas you see in the upper right corner or around the door reflect areas too damaged to be restored. Click for a larger vew.



mill girls
Click image for a larger view.


Don’t miss two smaller murals painted by the same artists at the entrance of Coburn Hall. They depict the 19th century mill girls at work and outside of St. Anne’s Church in downtown Lowell and include quotations from Lowell poet Lucy Larcom. The photo of the mill girls in front of St. Anne’s was taken during the restoration—note how bright the colors are on the right side after cleaning.