The birth of present-day Norwalk 100 years ago is told through an exhibit outside Norwalk Mayor Richard A. Moccia's office in City Hall.
Sooo-z Mastropietro, curator of the Mayor's Gallery, said she chose the voter-approved consolidation of Norwalk and South Norwalk in 1913 as the theme for the gallery's third exhibit because she wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary and that the Arts Commission approved the idea. "It is the centennial, and I thought people wanted to have it commemorated somehow," she said after a reception with several city officials and residents last Friday afternoon. "It's an important milestone for the city, and I thought `Why not [outside] the mayor's office?' He's an elected official and this demonstrates the progress of the city he oversees."
"It's really a venue for this important information to be viewed," she added.
The show highlights images from important landmarks in the downtown area from a time when Norwalk was a city divided. In 1913, voters in Norwalk voted to consolidate the cities of Norwalk and South Norwalk as well as the East Norwalk fire district. As part of the consolidation, the volunteer fire companies in the three departments were merged into one department.
Moccia praised Mastropietro for her "passion for the arts and involvement in creating things."
"She's had some help, but this lady's been doing everything. These things didn't just magically appear here," he said.
The 30 pieces in the exhibit include historical photos, current photos, maps of Norwalk beginning in the mid-1800s and microfilm copies of newspaper articles on the consolidation from the summer of 1913, which had headlines of "Referendum Placed Upon Consolidation Bill in House Today" and "Consolidation Routs Enemy."
The exhibit also includes several postcards blown up to poster size that depict Norwalk shortly after the consolidation. One, from 1915, depicts Hoyt's Theater, which later became a movie theater called "The Rialto," and another, from 1944, shows a view of Wall Street.
One of the city maps on display, framed and on loan from the Norwalk Public Library, measures 4 feet by 4 feet and likely dates to the 1920s, Mastropietro said.
"It's not indicated on the map anywhere," she said of the date. "I do think it's a fairly old map ... This has the railway on it, but there's no highway, there's no Super 7."
Other smaller maps are from 1847, 1896, 1917, pre-1959 and the construction of Interstate 95, and pre-1976.
Mastropietro, who's also curator of the Maritime Garage Gallery, said she was open to including more information on the consolidation if residents brought in visual media from that era. She said she's also going to try to obtain more photos of current Norwalk from Dana Laird, the photographer whose work is featured, so she can include more "now and then" photographic comparisons.
She said the exhibit would be up until April 5 and may then travel to other city buildings, such as the Norwalk Public Library and Norwalk Historical Society.
Emil Albanese, chairman of the Norwalk Arts Commission and president of the Norwalk Symphony, said the exhibit would be particularly important to school children who could go to City Hall on a field trip.
"It is an interesting thing for the children to learn ... This is living history," he said. "We're a very visual society. To watch Norwalk evolve through the pictures and images is really, really meaningful to the children."
"The consolidation of two cities is really remarkable," he said.
Betty Booth, a Norwalk resident for more than 50 years who stopped by to see the exhibit, said kids learn better when photos are involved.
"Kids like to learn history by actually seeing things ... so they get to know how things were," she said. "It's much more interesting."
Booth said any potential field trip to City Hall should include a guide who can explain the consolidation to the kids and point out buildings that are still around today.
"It would take some organization," she said.
Moccia indicated it shouldn't be a surprise he's not in the exhibit. "Despite what some people have attributed, I was not here during the first merger in 1913," he said.
The consolidation exhibit is the third to be featured outside the mayor's office. The first displayed art work from about 15 Fairfield County artists while the second highlighted the Norwalk Symphony and Crystal Theater, Mastropietro said.
Moccia said exhibits would continue to be installed in the space outside his office to let the public know about the Arts Commission. He said establishing an Arts Commission was one of the first things he did after being elected mayor because residents said they wanted one and that it had grown over the years.
"We have a lot of art here; we have a lot of creativity here," Albanese said. "I think it's just great that we can bring art of all types to our citizens and also to our children."
The city, Moccia said, was a particular standout when it came to music, citing the Norwalk Symphony, due to celebrate its 75th anniversary in two years; award-winning bands at Norwalk High School and Brien McMahon High School; a youth symphony; and classes in jazz and strings in middle schools.
"There is no better music program in this country than what Norwalk offers," he said.