Savin Hill’s beloved ‘500 years ago’ mural gets repairs

Savin Hill Mural: Packy McDonough and Paul Brancone installed the “Savin Hill 500 Years Ago” mural in November 1999. The mural has recently been restored by artist James Hobin.  Photo courtesy James HobinSavin Hill Mural: Packy McDonough and Paul Brancone installed the “Savin Hill 500 Years Ago” mural in November 1999. The mural has recently been restored by artist James Hobin. Photo courtesy James Hobin

A treasured mural that depicts Native American life in pre-colonial Dorchester has been restored in recent weeks by the artist who originally painted and mounted the artwork on the side of McKenna’s Café 14 years ago.

The mural, entitled “Savin Hill 500 Years Ago,” was dedicated in November 1999 and has become a signature element of the neighborhood that shares its name. James Hobin, a Savin Hill native who lives nearby, created the mural over four months in a Pearl Street art studio before it was carefully hung at the northeast corner of Sydney Street and Savin Hill Ave.

“The paint job looks terrific for something that’s been up there for 14 years,” said Hobin, who completed a modest restoration project on the mural last week. “After this patch job, I’d say we have another 15 years easy.”

Hobin said that rust damage has grown on one corner of the mural. The culprits were a handful of screws that Hobin used to finish the installation job 14 years ago.

“It was my fault. I was in a hurry to finish the hanging job and they weren’t stainless steel screws. A few spots on the bottom panels had rotted out. Considering that this mural has endured fourteen harsh winters and fourteen blistering summers, it is in very good condition. By making a few repairs, the mural will be ready for another few decades, at least.”

Hobin used latex house paint and applied a UV wax varnish over it to guard against damage.

“The repairs were done in two patches; from a distance of thirty feet they are virtually undetectable,” Hobin said, adding a challenge to passersby: “Take a look and try to find the patches.”

The repair work was made possible with financial assistance from the Phillips Street Fund arranged by the office of the Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund. The Browne fund sponsors public art projects in the City of Boston and cares for some of Boston’s most notable public monuments, including the Shaw Memorial.

Hobin’s Savin Hill mural depicts daily life in a settlement of the Neponset tribe of the Massachusetts Indians as seen from the crest of what is now called Meetinghouse Hill. The sweeping mural shows Savin Hill and Dorchester Bay. According to Hobin, he was guided by expert advice from local historians and Native Americans, including the Mashantucket/Pequot Museum and Research Center. Lauren Clark, Shane Hassey, Chau Nguyen and Halan Tran did historical research and preparatory drawings before painting on the mural under the artist’s close supervision.

Much of the project was funded with contributions from local residents, who purchased “mural shares” to help finance Hobin’s work. The project also received financial assistance from the City of Boston for hiring and training artist-apprentices from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester to help Hobin create the mural.

“The owner of the mural is the community,” says Hobin, who thanks building owner Ken Osherow for keeping the landmark in place.

Presently, Hobin is managing a new outdoor mural project that will adorn the Tuttle Street side of the Cristo Rey School in Savin Hill. The mural features present-day depictions of the life of Christ in a Dorchester setting.