Effort to Restore Searstown Mosaics Gets a Boost

A section of one of the mosaics

The effort to restore two large mosaic murals at the former Searstown shopping center got a boost Monday when a representative of the plaza’s owners said he supports the project.

“He had no problem with us removing and restoring” the two 53-year-old mosaics, historic preservation activist Natalie Oldenkamp said. She and three others met in Clearwater with Dominic Coloutes, vice president of National Properties Trust Inc., which owns the shopping center now known as Town Center.

Workers hired to spruce up the Memorial Boulevard center covered the murals in white paint recently in what Oldenkamp called “a complete accident. There was no ill intent.”

The next step: Coloutes will bring the issue to the company’s board for a decision, but he told Oldenkamp he isn’t anticipating any problem getting approval.

In the meantime, businessman Gregory Fancelli, who accompanied Oldenkamp Monday, is contacting mosaic restoration experts for advice and cost estimates. He is interested in removing the tiles using a technique called strappo that was developed in Italy to remove frescoes painted on plaster, and he envisions the wall segments encased in metal frames.

The mosaics were installed in 1964 on either side of the entrance of a then-new Publix store at the prompting of Publix founder George Jenkins. Fancelli said he has fond memories of visiting the murals with Jenkins, his grandfather, and he noted that many Publix stores built in the mid-Twentieth Century — including the one at Grove Park — incorporated agriculture-themed art.

Fancelli is planning to pay to remove and restore the 10-foot-by-20-foot murals and repair the Town Center walls once the murals are gone, but said there may be an option to let community members donate to the project.

“There’s been an outpouring of support and love from the community,” Oldenkamp said. A change.org petition to preserve the murals has received 700 signatures, and people posting on Facebook have expressed nostalgia for the murals.

Why not restore the murals where they are? Fancelli said he didn’t want maintaining the mosaics to remain a burden for the plaza owners and there is no guarantee the art would be preserved if the property is sold for another use. “It doesn’t have the meaning there it used to when the plaza was first developed,” he said.

No decisions have been made about where the murals would be moved, but Fancelli mentioned two sites connected with Publix: the Polk Tax Collector’s Office on Massachusetts Avenue, an art deco building built as a Publix store, and the Polk Museum of Art, which had its origins in a former Publix store on its Palmetto Street property.

Tax Collector Joe Tedder notes his location holds particular significance because the Publix store there closed to make way for the Searstown site six blocks away.

The objective is to display the mosaics in a place where they’re protected and where the public can see them, Tedder said: “I don’t know where the best place in town is for it, but if we can help preserve it where it won’t cost the taxpayers any money but brings value to the taxpayer then I’m all for it.”

Fancelli said he anticipates pedestrian traffic around Tedder’s office will increase since the neighborhood is being redeveloped with projects such as Mass Market, which includes an events space, art collective and offices.

Polk Museum Executive Director Claire Orologas was unavailable for comment today.

The project to restore the whitewashed murals had at least one temporary detractor. Artist Mike Yoder said on Facebook (but later recanted) that their depiction of all-white agriculture workers sent a signal in the waning days of segregation about who was welcome in the store.

Fancelli replied that the art should be judged by the artist’s intent to celebrate agriculture and transportation and not viewed through the lens of current sensibilities.