After covering the north face of the building at 108 Morris St., for more than 18 years, Emily Weinstein's Eno River Mural, too, has been covered. A coat of beige paint now slathers the wall where several hundred animals once were, outraging many Durham residents.
Caktus Group, which is responsible for the mural's destruction, claims the Historic Preservation Commission's approval for the restoration justifies the paint job. However, minutes from the April meeting during which it was approved show the commission emphasized the importance and significance of the mural to the company.
The new paint job is a part of a restoration of the building by the tech company based in Carrboro. Caktus painted over the mural after unbricking several windows from the same wall to let light in. The removal of the bricks also damaged Weinstein's work.
Caktus Group CEO Tobias McNulty issued an apology in blog post. In it, he said his company was trying to restore the building, which was constructed in 1910, to its original appearance.
McNulty also said that Caktus Group had been "blind to what the public response might be to the mural" and that the company had "handled this poorly."
McNulty cited the Durham Historic Preservation Commission's approval of the restoration as reasoning that the mural destruction was appropriate.
However, Commission Chair Joe Fitzsimons said the group's approval doesn't indicate that its members support the proposed restorations. Rather, it means they don't violate local criteria guidelines, which the commission must comply with.
"The commission doesn't have purview over paint," Fitzsimons said. "We're charged to work as objectively as we can. At the end of the day, there was nothing in the guidelines that would've allowed us to prevent them from doing what they wanted with the mural."
Nonetheless, according to staff notes, the commission warned Caktus Group that painting over the mural, although legal, was inadvisable.
After Caktus Group submitted its certificate of appropriateness application, the commission responded with a report that included four warnings about the mural's destruction.
"The distinctive scenic mural across the side of the building will be painted over a solid, oyster beige color," the first staff analysis note read. "The original Penny Furniture sign dating from the late 1960s will also be painted over. Neither of these murals are original to the building, but may be considered to have gained their own historical significance."
Additional staff notes cautioned that "The proposed modifications do include the removal of two murals that serve as a physical record of the structure's time, place, and use ... The proposed painting of this facade in solid oyster beige will eliminate the remains of the historic sign as well as the artistic mural."
The commission also included a warning about possible legal ramifications regarding the destruction of the mural, which could be protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. The federal law prevents works "from being distorted, mutilated, or modified by any force other than the passage of time. The applicability of the statute would be based on the date of the work and whether the author signed a waiver transferring rights to another party."
The mural was discussed during a public meeting, at which the company's plans were approved. McNulty didn't attend that meeting, but Caktus Group co-founder Colin Copeland did.
McNulty said he didn't know whether anybody at his company had investigated the possibility that the mural destruction was illegal. He didn't have an answer for the INDY by press time Tuesday.
Weinstein said the new paint job was motivated primarily by ignorance. "It is their building, and they can do what they want with it," she said. "In many ways I think they're really quite innocent. I just wish that people would have more of an appreciation for art."
Though Weinstein said she was devastated by the loss of her mural, which took more than six months to paint, she sees this as an opportunity to improve the community.
"It's been terribly painful for everybody involved, but I want to see us all come out ahead," Weinstein said. "I'm hoping that something absolutely fabulous comes out of this for the community."
Although Caktus Group doesn't know how it will remedy this problem, McNulty said the company is scheduling a public meeting to hear ideas.
"They've called, and they've reiterated apologies, but we're really waiting to see how they make this right," Weinstein said.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mired in a mural morass"