Some old friends have returned to the former Searstown Shopping Center.
One of the large mosaic murals by artist John Garth that adorned the north entrance to Save A Lot – and for decades before that, a Publix store – has been released from a layer of acrylic paint to reveal its bucolic scene of people gathering, selling and buying fresh produce, dairy and meat.
“After 5 1/2 years of being covered in paint, it’s a beautiful sight to enjoy the colors and the intricacies of the old Searstown mosaic by John Garth come alive again,” said Gregory Fancelli, an historic preservationist and grandson of Publix founder George Jenkins.
It was Jenkins who hired Garth to install the original, hand-crafted artworks in 1964 after Jenkins saw some of Garth’s work in California.
“Only two Publix stores were decorated with the work of John Garth,” Fancelli pointed out. “Back in the early 1990s, my grandfather would take me on his store visits and pointed out these mosaics, of which he was extremely proud. I feel the Publix stores art work mark a specific time and era in Florida.”
Fancelli explained that the 1960s saw tremendous growth and expansion of Publix throughout Florida. As part of being a good neighbor and contributor to the community, Jenkins wanted to add a signature touch to his stores. But adorning each new store with a Garth mosaic would have been too expensive and time-consuming.
“For these main reasons the artwork on Publix stores was assigned to Pati Mills and her two sons, Duke and James, who created the painted tile murals for over two decades,” Fancelli said.
And that’s where Chuck Flagler comes into the picture. Flagler worked with Albert Moore, Michael Davis and Vann Bronson to gently pressure wash the paint off the mosaic during the last week. Fancelli said it is the same team that has salvaged Pati Mills murals from several stores since 2018.
“I am very grateful for their passion, dedication and hard work towards this project,” he said. “It is my hope that one day all the remaining murals may come home to a single location in Lakeland so they may be enjoyed by present and future generations.”
Fancelli also funded a recreation of two other John Garth mosaics that once decorated a store in the Fort Lauderdale area, hiring artist Tom Pitzen for the project. Those were installed in 2018 on the front of the Polk County Tax Collector’s office on Massachusetts Avenue, which was once a Publix store.
The two original artworks at what was once called Searstown wound up under a layer of white paint in 2016, when the now-named Lakeland Town Center was sold and the new owner, National Properties Trust, decided to paint the entire plaza. Workers, apparently not knowing the value of the intricate artwork, painted over them just like the plain walls beside them.
Fancelli was distraught and negotiated with the company’s vice president, Dominic Coloutes of Clearwater, to restore and remove the mosaics, which contain thousands of pieces of square, glass tiles in different colors that create beautiful pictures, to a new location. They differed from Mills’ mosaics, which were hand painted onto tiles.
Another owner bought the plaza in 2021: Lakeland Town Center, LLLP. Its registered agent listed with the state is Guy Levintin. The new owner, who might have been unaware of what lay underneath a thin layer of paint, decided to spruce up the space occupied by the south mosaic by installing faux stone.
Levintin couldn’t be reached on Friday to see if he would cooperate in the ongoing project.
Retired Publix historian Jennifer Bush talked about the importance of the murals and their meaning to people in Lakeland who are old enough to remember when Searstown was THE place to shop. It included Sears and Publix, and also an S&H Green Stamp store, a barber shop and beauty parlor, along with Gandee’s Toy Store.
“The Searstown mosaic was a feast for the eyes,” Bush said. “What began as George Jenkins’ desire to beautify a building became much more — it became an icon of Lakeland. Seeing this piece of art history come to life again would be thrilling for those of us who remember its former glory as well as those yet to enjoy its beauty. So glad to see the work Gregory is doing for Lakeland’s history!”
Flagler said it was a learn-as-you-go process about how much pressure to use and whether or not it would work at all.
“We had a pretty good idea that it would work,” he said. “It just took time to get the right techniques down and then we were able to run with it.”
Flagler, who grew up in Lakeland and remembers the mosaics, is hoping to be able to restore the south mosaic, too.
“It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever worked on,” Flagler said. “I see so much more detail because we’re uncovering it inch by inch.”
SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: firstname.lastname@example.org