Brian Delutz, one of the new owners of Lakeland Town Center on Memorial Boulevard, grabbed a hammer and crowbar and began chipping away at a panel of painted Hardie board at the shopping center once known as Searstown.
Delutz and his foreman, Jose Sanchez, peeled back a small corner of the board, which is like drywall, as Natalie Oldenkamp, a member of the Lakeland Historic Preservation Board, said a silent prayer.
“I feel like I’m gonna cry,” Oldenkamp said as small, blue, glass tiles began peeking out.
The pair revealed what everyone in a small group surrounding them was hoping was there: the undamaged John Garth mosaic mural, installed at the shopping center in 1964 and commissioned by the late Publix founder George Jenkins.
On hand Thursday morning was Jenkins’ grandson, Gregory Fancelli, relieved to see a few tiles.
“We’re so grateful it’s still here,” Fancelli said, noting that now the faux stone installed on top of part of the Hardie board needs to be carefully removed.
The group of eight people gathered to discuss the future of the shopping center and the elaborate murals. Commonalities were discovered, new friendships were forged and visions of what could be — along with contact information — were shared among the group.
“We see the history that’s happened here in Lakeland and we want to bring it back,” Delutz said. “We want to put a plaque here. We want to help with some of the renovation.”
Delutz, Sanchez, Fancelli and Oldenkamp were joined by Albert Moore, who often works with Fancelli to restore historic buildings in Lakeland, Chuck Flagler, who recently stripped the paint off the other Garth Mosaic in the old Searstown, and Gus Palas, a friend of Fancelli’s who is also interested in the restoration of the shopping center.
Fancelli had wanted to remove the mosaics and place them elsewhere in Lakeland with other mosaics, something the previous owner, National Properties Trust, had agreed to 5½ years ago after its workers had painted over them – not realizing they were original works of art.
Delutz and his partners bought the strip mall at Memorial Boulevard and Ingraham Avenue last year. He and one of his partners, Sharon Sharaby, have said they want to keep the mosaics in place and restore them, including placing an informative plaque beside them. Fancelli said he would be amenable to that, as long as they repaired a metal pipe encasing electrical wiring that is running from one mosaic and removed the faux stone, Hardie board and a layer of paint covering the other.
“But they need to do it right way – they need to relocate the conduit,” Fancelli said. “The other one — they need to uncover it properly. They need to fix and coat them.”
Preserving the murals is not the only plan the new owners have. They want to revive and remodel the shopping center by adding eight restaurants in a front parking lot outparcel, along with an apartment building with 150 units in a back parking lot. Two outbuildings are currently under renovation, with a barbecue restaurant slated to open in one and a religious institution scheduled to move into the other.
“I feel this area really needs a boost in terms of everything,” Delutz said. “It just needs infrastructure and care and love.”
Searstown became one of the main shopping centers in Lakeland in the 1960s, with people flocking to the Sears store, Publix, Woolworth’s, Harrell’s Garden Center, a barber shop and beauty parlor, Colony Shop, McFarland’s Shoe Repair, H&D Cafeteria, Belk-Lindsey, along with Gandee’s Toy Store. A mosaic with Harrell’s Garden Center still adorns the front apron of a storefront.
“Anything we find like that we’ll restore it,” Delutz said.
Fancelli explained that the 1960s saw tremendous growth and expansion of Publix throughout Florida. Searstown was Publix store #15 for the supermarket chain that has since expanded throughout the Southeastern United States.
As part of being a good neighbor and contributor to the community in the 1960s, 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.
Instead, the artwork on Publix stores was assigned to Pati Mills and her two sons, Duke and James, who created the painted tile murals for more than two decades.
There was also an S&H Green Stamp store at Searstown. For decades, grocery store shoppers received a number of stamps with each purchase as a loyalty reward and could use those stamps to buy items like housewares, electronics and dishwares at the Green Stamp store. S&H Green Stamp stores were located throughout the country until about 2000.
Delutz said he could see bringing back something like that, with each store in the center issuing loyalty stamps to be redeemed at a refurbished store.
The Green Stamp store was in a back corner, the courtyard of which had been covered by another mosaic called “Foods of the World,” with a mosaic spider as its centerpiece.
Oldenkamp has evidence that the ground mosaic was not just buried under concrete – it was jackhammered out in the 1980s because it was falling apart and might have created a trip-and-fall hazard.
“Who ripped that apart?” Delutz said when Oldenkamp showed him a postcard of the elaborate walkway and spider.
The pair found they had something else in common besides historic preservation. Oldenkamp’s father helped to liberate France during World War II and her mother was in the French underground. Delutz’s father was a colonel in the French Army before being captured and tortured by the Nazis.
Fancelli wandered around the back plaza, looking at the original rock walls and inspecting the electrical and plumbing system that once fed a small fountain and private garden on the east side of the courtyard.
“You can re-energize the courtyard without changing the format,” Fancelli said. “It might be a little more upkeep for them, but maybe it would entice people to the places that are still unleased out here.”
Flagler, who owns a pressure-washing company, worked with Albert Moore, Michael Davis and Vann Bronson to gently pressure wash the paint off the mosaic in early February. Fancelli said it is the same team that has salvaged Pati Mills murals from several stores since 2018. Flagler is now going to try to get a permit from the city to uncover the second Garth mosaic. It’s not clear how long that process might take.
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