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Adajian’s Restaurant: After 20 Years In Storage, Murals Still Captivate


If you lived in Hartford in the 1940s, the place to go to see and be seen was Adajian’s restaurant on Asylum Street. Insurance executives, politicians, entertainers and other patrons flocked to the downtown hot spot, pausing to check their wives’ mink coats at the door.

The cuisine was Armenian, exotic for the era, and the atmosphere was equally tantalizing. Opened in 1947 — this was Joseph S. Adajian’s second or third Hartford restaurant; another was called The Roundtable — the interior was dimly lit and smoky, with a basement bar called the Cave or Grotto.

But what made the restaurant extraordinary were its murals. Described throughout the years as Middle Eastern fantasy and surrealistic, the 14 murals depicting tales from the Arabian Nights covered nearly every square foot of wall space. Thirteen of the murals have survived. They had not been viewed by the Adajian family for more than 20 years, until recently.

Thurston Munson painted 14 murals for Adajian’s Restaurant in Hartford, some quite surrealistic. (Jane Dee | Hartford Magazine)

“The lounge was dark, the murals were lit,” former band leader Paul Landerman told The Courant in 1996. “In the ’40s, it was the only place. If you didn’t have reservations, don’t bother going.”

Adajian and his wife, Pearl, operated the restaurant for nearly 40 years. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, said granddaughter Shirley Heckert of Clearwater, Florida. “My grandfather fled Armenia to escape being inducted into the Turkish army,” Heckert said. “My grandfather sent for her; he honored the family’s arrangement. I don’t think she had seen him more than a couple of times in her life.”

And yet Adajian’s became a family affair as the couple and their five children helped to run the establishment. Their son Ed became a fixture tending the Grotto’s bar.

In addition to the Grotto and main dining room, Adajian’s hosted large events in a banquet hall. “It was close to the Capitol, they had parties from there,” Heckert said. “They had major insurance company parties, Pratt & Whitney parties.”

She remembers as a young child sitting on Gov. John N. Dempsey’s lap during a daytime event. “I would not have been allowed there at night,” she said.

A detail from one of the murals from Adajian’s. (Jane Dee | Hartford Magazine)

Neil Howett, 70, of Hartford, frequented the Grotto when he worked for an insurance company in the early 1970s. “The Grotto was lit enough that you could see the murals were on all the walls, including behind the bar,” Howett remembered. “They were captivating, interesting and in my mind kind of erotic, but maybe that was because back then to see people bare-chested or partially clothed was exotic.”

Artist Thurston Munson painted the murals inside the restaurant. Heckert has a shadowy memory of watching him work.

Cathy McCarthy of Mystic said her grandfather had “spent a fortune” on the murals. “They were like part of the family.”

While some of the murals are framed, this large one was unrolled when the Adajians’ granddaughter Cathy McCarthy came to see them in storage in Three Rivers, Mass. (Jane Dee | Hartford Magazine)

After the restaurant closed in 1986, the murals were restored by Munson and in 1995 they were displayed in a gallery near his studio in Greenfield, Mass. That was the last time McCarthy saw them. In 2004, the murals were placed in storage at National Library Relocations in Three Rivers, Mass. McCarthy traveled there in early June to view them.

“Oh my, a naked woman!” she said, as the first mural was revealed. She was not surprised, as she recalled how the liquor commission considered the murals to be a little too racy and asked that the artist tone them down.

Back in the 1940s, artist Thurston Munson was asked to tone down the murals, which officials thought were a bit too racy. (Jane Dee | Hartford Magazine)

A woman with Rapunzel-length blonde hair and blue eyes is a recurring figure in many of the murals. Several depict men and women against fanciful backgrounds with star-shaped flowers and long-tailed birds.

Now that Joseph and Pearl Adajian’s five children are deceased, Heckert and McCarthy say it’s time to donate the murals to a museum or sell them to collectors.

“I would prefer that they not be destroyed — that they find a home,” Heckert said.

“We have to come to a consensus,” McCarthy added. “It’s up to the family to decide.”

Detail from one of the murals. (Jane Dee | Hartford Magazine)



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