(Note: I wrote this together with David Hoover and wanted to make sure he gets credit for the writing as well as for the research and the photos! -C) 

During regular business hours, City Hall is visited by residents for personal needs such as public services, city assistance, paying taxes and fees, applying for permits and licenses, and getting copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates. City Hall is also where commercial businesses, private and public companies, builders, contractors, and architects come to file building plans and to apply for city permits, approvals, licenses, and special variances and waivers. It is understandable that these personal and business visits are brief, and that individuals walking quickly down the main hallway between City Hall’s entrance and the new offices of the Department of Public Health and Department of Veterans Services may not realize that they have walked past one of Newton’s hidden gems – a small museum memorializing military service rendered by Newton residents to our country during times of war.

The museum was designed as partner to Newton’s War Memorial Auditorium, which, along with the new City Hall, was dedicated and opened to the public in 1932. The focus of the memorial and the cornerstone of the entire museum is a set of four large, exacting battle dioramas set into the walls of the museum. Each diorama is a 3-dimensional model with a painted background and figures that are approximately 95 mm in height displaying a single memorable moment in America’s history. Standing in front of these dioramas and viewing the scenes they depict is like travelling back in time. Each diorama takes the viewer back to a precise moment in history to see and ponder what it would have been like to be there. Seeing is understanding.(1) 

The November 11, 1932 Program for the Dedication of City Hall and the War Memorial Auditorium had this to say about the dioramas:

“… in no part of the entire United States are there any action models which compare with the four realistic and spirited miniature models of scenes from America’s past wars which are placed there in deep recesses of the walls flanked by trophy cases which tie in with the models by of the scenes they depict … Into the creation of these four battle scenes has gone, not only a year’s artistry effort, but also painstaking research which included the close study of records in the libraries of Boston and New York, and in the Navy and Marine Corps Departments’ in Washington. In addition, it included a study of the Constitution herself and visits to the historic sites of Valley Forge and Gettysburg.

In the construction of these four models, the figures were made of a special composition, of which beeswax is the base. They were all modeled individually so that none of the 200 odd figures is identical, in either posture, figure or face. Each was carefully painted with specially prepared oil paint. The weapons and equipment were all made to scale from actual relics of the periods represented. The miniature models were designed and executed by Samuel J. Guernsey, Assistant Curator of Archaeology at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, and Theodore B. Pitman, in their studio in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass.”

Samuel Guernsey and Theodore Pitman were Harvard anthropologists who developed an unusual and unique style of building model scenes depicting historical events, nature, cityscapes, anthropology, or cultures in various scales for Harvard’s anthropology department in the early 1900s. They would visit the site of the particular event and research, measure, and make notations of the physical surroundings and its history prior to the build. Such effort promised, and delivered, historical accuracy. Guernsey and Pitman are perhaps best known for the “Harvard Forests” dioramas, which are on display at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. (If you have not visited the Harvard Forests and viewed their eleven dioramas, it is a highly recommended day trip.)

Guernsey and Pitman also created three spectacular dioramas depicting the campus of Harvard College as it was in 1677, 1775, and 1936. They were initially displayed in Harvard’s Widener Library from 1947 to 2004. It took more than eight years to construct the first diorama with its precise measurements of the University campus, intricate urban details, bridges, boathouses, buildings, residences, streets, parks, subway, electric buses, and the natural landscape of Cambridge, including the Charles River, in 1936.

Guernsey and Pitman constructed interpretive dioramas depicting three Revolutionary War events: the Battle of Concord Bridge, the Battle of Lexington Green, and the British Retreat from Concord, also known as Battle Road at Lexington. At one time, these three dioramas were on display at the National Park’s Visitors Center in Lexington and at the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown. The Concord Bridge diorama can now be seen on display at the Concord Museum. The Battle Road diorama is at the Dracut Town Hall. The Lexington Green diorama was given to the Town of Lexington.(2) 

Each of these municipalities is truly fortunate to have one Guernsey and Pitman historical diorama. However, the City of Newton has four. They are unique, accurate depictions of historical events, and priceless works of art that are deserving of, and in fact demand, rehabilitation by a conservator.

However, in the 86 years since the War Memorial Museum was dedicated, the displays – the dioramas nor the other historical items – encased in the walls behind glass have seen very limited care, maintenance, cleaning, or renovating. The displays have accumulated dirt, dust, and damage, as well as chipped, cracked, peeling, and faded paint. To make matters worse, the memorial was affected by considerable water damage resulting from leaks in the War Memorial’s cupola several years ago. While there is obvious damage to the ceilings and walls, the Valley Forge diorama suffered significant damage as well and has remained in this state of disrepair although the leak in the Cupola was repaired in 2013. (See attached photos.)

Moreover, display items are presented without any coherent structure and – in most cases – without any description or identification. Some areas of the museum, such as the staircase and wrap around walkway, have been left unpainted or have peeling paint, and in places are used for storage of tables, chairs, ladders and other unrelated items. The lighting is inadequate and ineffective compared to today’s technology. In short, the museum, once the pride of Newton, has become a dark, dingy, confusing place.

Another issue to address is that, because the War Memorial was dedicated and opened to the public well before the start of Europe’s Second World War and America’s Pacific War, the museum has no displays that provide a historical accounting of Newton’s involvement in the Second World War, the Pacific War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its displays cover America’s military involvements from the American Revolution to the Armistice at the conclusion of the Great War. Since 1932, veterans’ associations and organizations, City officials, and residents have created public memorials to remember those who gave their all for this country, including MIA/POWs, in these and the subsequent wars of Korea and Vietnam by monuments erected outside City Hall and throughout the City in numerous villages, but not within the memorial museum.

Now, in 2018, many Newton residents feel it is time to bring the memorial museum into the 21st century. No one will argue the fact that City Hall itself is in need of repairs and updating, primarily in the areas of heating, cooling, lighting, windows, and painting. But the small area on the first and second floors that constitute the War Memorial Museum must be attended to first. It is a small price to pay for a promise that has been given. As a city, we owe our veterans of yesterday and today nothing less than that.

A small group of volunteers is currently in the process of developing a plan to spruce up the memorial area. Phase one of the project will be led by Newton North High School student and Eagle Scout candidate Angelo Visciano and will involve cleaning and painting the common areas as well as creating an inventory documenting all of the exhibits and artifacts owned by the City. Higher quality, museum appropriate lighting will be needed to replace the lighting installed in 1932. Decisions on the color of paint and the painting of the displays must be made. Perhaps a small area to sit and rest comfortably could be added. Updating the museum space will make it more welcoming to the public, who we hope will be attracted to this space displaying Newton’s history where they can learn, remember, or contemplate.

The second phase of the project will involve restorative work to the dioramas, in particular the Valley Forge display. Newton resident David Hoover, historical advisor on the this project, will assist in overseeing restoration of the dioramas. Mr. Hoover has a tremendous amount of research material on the history of the events depicted in the four battle scenes, as well as an unusual collection of material on the lives, both personal and professional, of Mr. Guernsey and Mr. Pitman, and their artistry in the form of historical displays. He will also expand on, or add new, historical information from a local perspective to the displays. 

Councilors Jake Auchincloss and James Cote – along with Public Buildings Commissioner Josh Morse and City Clerk David Olsen – have been instrumental in getting the funding together for the first phase. Additional resources will be necessary to support the second phase. Please watch this space, and let us know if you (or someone you know who may not read this post) are able to assist in this project in any way.


(1) Ira Jacknis, “Doing the History of Anthropology as the History of Visual Representation”, History of Anthropology Newsletter 40 (2016): http://histanthro.org/notes/doing-the-history-of-anthropology/. Eric Aldrich, “Stepping into the past” January 12, 2016; https://www.ledgertranscript.com/Archives/2015/11/GfAldrich-ml-112715-3.aspx.

(2) Sean Fisher, “Report Regarding the History of Three Interpretive Dioramas Depicting Events of the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord Owned by the Metropolitan District Commission,” March 2003.

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