After two years of study and discussion, work officially began this week to remove the mural from the south wall of the Historic Hoosier Theater in Vevay.
Preservation experts had told the board of directors of Historic Vevay, Inc., the group that is responsible for the building; that the type of paint used by artist Joe Leatherbury to paint the mural had caused the old bricks to begin to deteriorate, and if the mural wasn’t taken down, the entire wall – and the theater itself – might be in jeopardy of falling in.
“There has been huge amounts of activity on our side during the past two years,” Fred Stave of Historic Vevay said. “Really going over this in depth. Getting more experts to log in, and to make sure that we were doing the right thing. The bottom line ended up with every single expert and half-expert that we talked to, 100-percent said, ‘If you don’t take the paint off, the wall’s going to fall down’.”
Stave said that over the past two years there has been “significantly more” interior degradation; to the point that the board began to have concerns about the safety of the public as it attended events.
“The interior, not only on that wall side, but also on the front side in the office area, everything’s falling off, all of the plaster is falling off,” Stave said.
But even though the board finally came to the decision to remove the mural, it wasn’t without an emotional struggle.
“Every single one of us hated making it,” Stave said. “We obviously value that painting, as evidenced by all of this got started when we were going to freshen it up. We were going to restore it somewhat. We don’t take any comfort in doing it, but our primary responsibility in our bylaws is to maintain the integrity of the building.”
Stave said that as the board researched and had preservationists come to the theater and weigh in on what could or couldn’t be done; another interesting fact came to light – a relationship with Indiana Historic Landmarks that the current Historic Vevay board didn’t know about.
“It turns out that they own the facade easement on that entire building,” Stave said. “That came about as a result of the re-do in the 80s that the board and others did in order to restore the building. They got a loan or a grant from Indiana Landmarks, but part of that agreement was a facade easement – which means Indiana Landmarks controls the looks of the outside and the conditions of the outside.”
In other words, nothing could be done to the exterior without the permission of Indiana Landmarks, but as different people came and went from positions with Indiana Landmarks and also with the Historic Vevay board, no one knew of the facade easement when Leatherbury was hired to paint the mural, which was done in 1997-1998.
“They (Indiana Landmarks) said that they would have never allowed the mural to be done if they had known about the facade easement.” Stave said.
The work is being done by Atlas Restoration from Wabash, Indiana. Stave said that the board got several bids on the project, but would only consider bidders who had extensive experience in this type of process. He said that the company expects to have the job completed in approximately a week and a half, and it is being done at a cost of approximately $32,000.
The company will be using a chemical process that involves placing the chemical on the wall and then covering it with a sheet of special paper. After the chemical dries, the paper is removed, and the paint pulls away with the paper. The area is then gently washed to remove other debris. Stave noted that the age of the brick does not allow the use of sandblasting equipment or other things like that, because that pressure would also destroy the bricks.
Once the entire process is completed, the wall will be tuck pointed at some point, and the interior damage will be fixed. Stave said that experts found no permanent structural damage to the wall or the building at this point, so the long term safety of the theater is assured.
Stave also said that the portion of the mural that has all of the names of the benefactors on it who helped underwrite the mural will remain. That is painted on a newer, concrete block portion of the back side of the theater building, so the paint does not hamper that.
“We hate it, we really do, because everybody is really proud of it,” Stave said. “But our responsibility is to the building and to the integrity; and to Indiana Landmarks.”
Even though the work has started, there is still an effort underway to stop the project.
Douglas Leatherbury, brother of artist Joe Leatherbury and an attorney in Salem, Indiana, said that he is keeping all options open.
“We haven’t decided exactly what to do, because we don’t know exactly what’s going on down there in Vevay, Leatherbury said by phone on Tuesday morning. “It looks like from what I hear from phone calls that they’re taking his mural off the wall, and of course we strongly object to that. It would be very sad to see the mural being damaged. We’ll be deciding in the next few days what action to take. We’re certainly going to try to save it if we can and preserve it.”
Douglas Leatherbury said that he called and left a message for the Historic Vevay board on Monday asking them to “cease and desist”, but he had not heard any response at the time of this phone conversation.
“I haven’t received a call back from them or anything,” he said. “I called a board representative and left a cease and desist message, but I haven’t received any calls back or any information back.”
Douglas Leatherbury said that eventually they will possibly do something through the court system to stop the removal, but said that it would be a few days before any decision would be made on a specific course of action. He said he and his brother and others were all caught off guard by the word that work had begun.
“They never gave us any notice whatsoever that they intended to do such a terrible thing,” Douglas Leatherbury said. “We’re very sad and very disappointed in them. I don’t know why they would want to destroy something so valuable to the community like that. We’ve received a lot of messages on Facebook that people are very disappointed and very sad to lose it. I appreciate the support of Vevay. They’re really supported that mural, and really enjoy it and love it. It’s just like a part of our family and we certainly hate to see it go.”
– Pat Lanman