Historic Vevay, Inc., which operates the Historic Hoosier Theater in Vevay, has announced that excessive interior damage to the southern wall of the building - which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places - has led to a painful decision.
The mural on the exterior of the southern wall will have to come down.
Board members Fred Stave and Toni Kniola said that the decision was a difficult one - and acknowledge that the decision is also an emotional one for many county residents.
But there really is no other option.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and the agreement signed at that time gave the National Register control over the exterior of the building. But that portion of the agreement was lost as board members came and went, and had been completely forgotten when the board contracted with local artist Josiah Leatherbury to paint the mural in 1997, and his work continued through 1998.
The paint used to produce the mural was an acrylic latex that in essence sealed the old, historic brick, which was used to build the theater in 1837. It is that sealing that has caused the structural problem.
Because of the age of the brick that forms the exterior wall, it has to be able to 'breath', allowing moisture to move in and out. When the paint sealed that brick, there is no way for the bricks to breath, and that has forced the moisture to the interior, where there is now major damage to the interior wall.
The moisture is also pushing out, which has caused portions of the mural to chip away, and in various places the tuck pointing between the bricks is completely gone.
Structural engineers with expertise in historic preservation have come to the somber conclusion:
Unless the mural is removed and the exterior brick is repaired, the entire building is in danger of falling down. The exterior damage is causing severe interior damage; which compromises the structural integrity of the entire southern wall, which also supports the balcony and the second floor.
"You can see where we have damage all along the bottom of the interior of the south wall," Toni Kniola said. "And you can see, it's traveling. We don't want to lose the wall, and we've got some damage upstairs, as well. We've met with Historic Landmarks to see what they recommend. We don't want to lose the theater, obviously."
The sad possibility: The mural will come down, one way or another.
Last year, the board of Historic Vevay, Inc. decided to have the mural "freshened up" in preparation for the Vevay Bicentennial. At that time, Josiah Leatherbury filed a "cease and desist" order using a statute that says that no one can change art in any way except for the artist himself.
At that point, talk of doing work on the mural stopped, but the interior problem continued to surface.
"This whole thing started last July when the board made a decision to go ahead and fix the wall on the outside where paint was falling off and the bricks were spawling," Fred Stave said. "In the act of doing that, Joe Leatherbury got in touch with his brother, and - as it turns out - we're very, very glad that he did."
Fred Stave said that after work stopped, board members ran into Seth Elder, executive director of Indiana Landmarks.
In talking with him, some entirely new information came to light.
"We didn't know that, under the terms of the 'Historic Landmarks' agreement, that we the theater had to sign what is called a 'facade easement'."
Fred Stave said that the facade easement states that Indiana Landmarks has full control over how the outside of the building looks.
"We as a board are responsible for not only making sure that we maintain the visual part of the theater to what it was at the time of the granting of that easement, but that we be responsible for the maintenance and the upkeep," Fred Stave said.
Fred Stave said that Seth Elder and Indiana Landmarks didn't know the provision of the facade easement, either; and making matters more difficult was that the person guiding the paperwork for the National designation at the time passed away midway through the process.
"As it turns out, if we would have know that each other existed, and that the easement existed, we've been told that Indiana Landmarks would not have granted permission to do that mural," Fred Stave said. "Two wrongs don't make a right, so now there's this issue."
When Seth Elder came to Vevay in July of last year, upon looking at the wall he immediately saw that there was a major problem with the southern wall where the mural is located.
"Seth asked us what type of paint was used, and we didn't know, so he called in a fellow from Newport, Kentucky, who is a building conservation, historic preservation architect and specializes in this kind of work," Fred Stave said. "When he got here and looked at it, he agreed that we had a really big problem."
Faced with a decision on what to do, members of the board of the theater traveled to Salem, Indiana, in late January/early February to meet with Douglas Leatherbury, attorney for and brother of Josiah Leatherbury.
At that meeting, board members went over all of the issues with the building; providing all of the information and structural data.
"We have two letters, one from the architect and one from Seth Elder, that basically says that the paint has got to come off," Fred Stave said. "Or else the wall is eventually going to disintegrate and collapse. We first have a responsibility to public safety; and then we've got a second responsibility for the maintenance of the theater; and then a third, from these people, that also says we have the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the building."
After a discussion in Salem, and the realization that something drastic must be done in order for the building to be saved, the board of directors offered acknowledgment of the mural and its significance to the building and the community.
The board will commission a high quality photograph of the mural that will be framed and displayed inside the theater. Along with the photo, there will be information on the history of the mural and also a biography of artist Josiah Leatherbury. Information will also be included as to why the mural had to be removed.
This will help preserve the significance of the mural for the future.
"We're not trying to deface his art and we're not trying to demean it, it's just the physical fact that it's got to come off," Fred Stave said. "It's been a very difficult decision for all of us, but first and foremost we have a responsibility to protect the building."
What comes next?
The board is currently working on grants to cover the expense of the removal. The work will have to be done by a specialized company, and the process has to remove the paint without doing more damage to the brick.
The process will use a chemical gel that will be painted on, then covered by a special paper. After a day, the paper is rolled away, and the paint sticks to the paper. After that, the wall will have to be preserved using a special stain that is used to help preserve the brick. Tuckpointing will also have to be done with a special mortar.
"It's a decision that we hate to make, but it has to be done in order to preserve the entire building," Fred Stave said.