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Coburn Hall Renovations, Hidden Mural Revealed

Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney and Art professor Marie Frank look at the relief sculptures in the large hall of Coburn Hall Photo by Lowell Sun/Julia Malakie
Tour of renovated and expanded Coburn Hall at UMass Lowell South Campus, originally the Lowell Normal School, founded to train teachers. Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, left, and Marie Frank, associate professor, UML Department of Art and Design, looking at the relief sculptures in the large hall. At rear is the large WPA-era mural in the process of being restored. It had been painted over.

01/10/2020
Lowell Sun
By Alana Melanson

LOWELL — Under layers and layers of beige paint, UMass Lowell’s Coburn Hall hid a colorful mural of 1930s Lowell for more than three decades.

Featuring scenes of education and real buildings in the city, the mural was likely covered up sometime in the early 1980s after water leaks damaged portions of it and the doorways were reconfigured without transom windows.

While putting together an architectural history of the building in 2015 as UMass Lowell prepared to undertake extensive renovations of Coburn Hall, Art History Professor Marie Frank found old photos of a 1930s dance in the third-floor assembly room that showed a vibrant mural in the background.

“I just looked at that and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, where is it now?'” Frank said.

The mural spans 64-feet-by-10-feet across the upper wall of the room, which has since been divided into three smaller rooms.

Painted in 1934 by artists Richard V. Ellery, Elmer W. Green Jr. and Caroll Bill, the murals were commissioned by art instructor DeMeritte Hiscoe and Clarence Weed, principal of then-Lowell Teachers College.

The central panel depicts a teacher and a group of schoolchildren with real Lowell schools behind them. In a nod to the city’s rich immigrant history, the top border shows the flags of the countries that residents of the time had emigrated from. Other panels show student musicians and athletes, Lowell City Hall, mills, and works of classical architecture.

Frank secured a grant to hire Gianfranco Pocobene, chief conservator at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, to uncover and repair the mural.

Because the mural and the overpaint were both oil paint, Pocobene’s team found they could not use solvents to remove all of the top layers of paint. Instead, they’ve been using duct tape to gently strip it away, revealing the boldly colored and detailed brushwork underneath.

In the parts where the damage was too great to restore, Pocobene’s team has been applying neutral colors — a practice often applied to damaged frescos in Europe, he said.

Coburn Hall is the oldest building on campus, going back to the days of its predecessor Lowell Normal School, a training school for teachers that later became Lowell State College.

As part of the university’s 125th anniversary, the building underwent extensive renovations, including accessibility upgrades and smart classroom technology. The building was closed for three semesters during the $47 million project, which necessitated moving classes and faculty to other locations on campus.

Coburn Hall will officially reopen when classes resume on Jan. 21, and will house the College of Education and the Department of Psychology

For Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who first attended classes at Coburn Hall as a student and then taught there as a faculty member, it “is just so exciting for us to be able to open this building with this kind of grandeur,” she said.

“We feel this is the time of rebirth for the College of Education,” Moloney said. “So for them to have this beautiful home that they deserve, I think we feel we will be out there being a signature university of how to teach in the next century, and this building is symbolic of our path toward that excellence in education.”

Coming up the first floor steps, entrants will immediately see into an upper-elementary training classroom with big windows that reveal large computer screens.

“As you walk into the building, we try to make teaching visible,” said Eleanor Abrams, dean of the College of Education. “Often, it’s behind closed doors. We believe that teaching should be something that is seen and something that you’re sharing.”

Abrams is excited about the technology-enhanced active learning center in the basement, which she said will create a myriad of learning opportunities. For instance, it will allow college students to create virtual fields trips for K-12 students in the Merrimack Valley, and help them learn how to teach coding, she said.

On the first floor, the original terrazzo floors were also restored and smaller murals, depicting Lowell mill girls, have been cleaned and spotlit.

According to Executive Director of Planning, Design and Construction Adam Baacke, Coburn Hall was one of the last buildings on campus that was not accessible for those with mobility issues. To make the historic front entrance accessible, the front stair was pulled out from the building and the entire front lawn regraded, he said. A universal path was made going up to the front of the building, along with a front interior hall leading to the new elevator, Baacke said.

The rear of the original 60,000-square-foot building received a 14,000-square-foot addition, connecting the left and right wings with additional office and classroom spaces and hallways. The historic exterior rear wall was preserved and its iron spot brick and large windows remain visible inside on each floor.

Classrooms, previously concentrated on upper floors, have been moved mostly to the lower floors, which each have a direct entrance from the exterior, and the offices are concentrated up on the upper floors, Baacke said. Faculty and student bathrooms were also added on each floor, he said.