Mural removal sparks controversy, apology

Jul. 11, 2014 @ 04:51 PM

Artist Emily Weinstein’s Eno River Mural on the former Penny Furniture building is now covered with beige paint, the result of ongoing restoration work to the historic building at 108 Morris St. The paint-over sparked buzz and outrage online beginning late Thursday, and a quick online apology from the company that is restoring and plans to move into the building.

“To completely erase the culture and history that has built up over time is quite unbelievable,” Weinstein said in a phone interview. Weinstein completed the mural on the north wall of the building in 1996, when it was still Penny Furniture, and said she had hoped the new owners would work with her and perhaps other artists to refurbish the mural. “They went ahead and did this without talking to the right people,” she said.

“It was sad to see it go,” said Kim Wheaton, an artist at Pleiades Gallery around the corner on Chapel Hill Street. She once included the mural in a painting titled “Looking Toward Five Points. “I wish there had been a little more discussion, at least contacting Emily,” Wheaton said.

Weinstein’s Facebook posting drew numerous sympathetic posts and “likes” similar to Wheaton’s. Tobias McNulty, CEO of Caktus Group in Carrboro, which is renovating the building and plans to move into the space in the fall, posted an apology on the company’s website (which another viewer also posted to Weinstein’s Facebook page).

“Hindsight is always 20-20, and in retrospect we wish we had involved the community more,” McNulty said in a phone interview. He called the reaction “a learning experience for us.” In his online post McNulty said restoring the bricked-in windows would have damaged the mural, which was showing wear.

“Unfortunately, in restoring a long abandoned historic building that had been remodeled by many hands over the decades, we had to make sacrifices,” McNulty stated in his post. “To return the building to its original 1910 state, we needed to unbrick the windows which would also remove sections of [the mural]. The mural would receive further damage around the windows by default.”

Caktus had its plans approved through the Durham Historic Preservation Commission in April, and consulted the websites Endangered Durham and Open Durham for images to help with the historical restoration, McNulty stated.

Caktus Group describes itself as “committed to social good.” It uses technology to help businesses and other organizations solve problems, said Hao Nguyen, strategy director for Caktus. The company recently used its resources to help set up a voting registration system in Libya, and has worked in Malawi to help deliver anti-viral drugs faster, she said.

By going through the Historic Preservation Commission and other organizations “we thought we were including the community,” Nguyen said. “We thought we were going through the right steps,” she said.

Caktus plans to have a community meeting at a future date to allow the public to learn about the renovation, and to talk about the removal of the mural, Nguyen said. (For updates, visit http://cakt.us/building-updates.)

A previous owner of the building had made a similar proposal, including painting of the north and west sides of the building. “During the [April] meeting, those who knew better than us -- actual preservationists -- said that going forward with the window openings would do more to preserve the integrity of the building than the more recent mural,” McNulty stated in his post. “These layers of approval made us feel we should proceed with our focus on restoration.”

The building was designated part of the Downtown Durham Historic District in 1989, according to a certificate of appropriateness report. It was built sometime between 1907 and 1910. Special features include a two-story brick facade with arched windows, simple hood molds and an ornamental cornice, according to the report.

Weinstein’s murals are well known, and have become part of the Durham landscape. Among them are a mural that faces the parking lot of St. Francis Animal Hospital, a mural commemorating Durham’s Black Wall Street, and one commemorating the 50th anniversary of Durham Technical Community College.

By coincidence, the Durham Civil Rights History Mural Project, the city’s first public art project, is being prepared just steps away, on the rear wall of the Durham Convention Center facing Morris Street. The wall has been primed, and the outline of the mural is being drawn on the wall. Painting of the mural is scheduled to begin soon, and the public may participate.