The future of a faux painted storefront, so lifelike that the city once whimsically tried to collect taxes on it, is uncertain due to the wear and tear it has endured since it was first painted in 1984.
The giant 42-by-32-foot mural, which is painted on the alley side of a building whose entrance is on Newark Street, depicts a three-story brownstone complete with an ornate green latticed roof, yellow walls and a first floor storefront.
Its lifelike proportions and its unlikely location – the spot is partially obscured by the New York Sports Club sign across the alley – almost tricks viewers into believing that it is real.
“You can never really view the whole thing at one time,” explained Kit Sailor, the Jersey City-based artist who painted it 16 years ago from a scaffolding hanging as much as 40 feet high in the air. “You can just catch glimpses of it as you pass by. It’s like a bright splash of sunlight that comes and goes all of a sudden. But since you never really see the whole thing, you don’t have a chance to scrutinize its reality.”
Unfortunately for the weathered mural, which was dubbed 76 Court Street by Mayor Steve Cappiello 16 years ago when he jokingly drew up a tax bill for it, the reality of being exposed to the elements seems to have caught up with it, even if the untrained eyes of some of the city’s residents have not.
“I really don’t want to take it down, but I don’t have a choice,” said Todd Hennessey, the owner of the building who has hired a contractor to restore the shine of the building’s original bricks.
But Hennessey is not giving up on the space. He’d like to put a new mural up where the old one once was. “I talked to an artist who wanted to put up a giant picture of Frank Sinatra,” he said, looking up at the wall space longingly. “We had approvals from Sinatra’s wife, Nancy, and everything, but the city said we couldn’t do it because it was advertising, so I’m not sure what we are going to do.”
Simply touching up the old one does not appear to be a possibility. Even though the piece still holds together when viewed at a distance, an up-close inspection shows the deleterious impact of 16 years of sun, wind and rain. Sailor said, “there is more paint off it than on it. Frankly I’m surprised it has lasted this long.” But she pointed out that painting a new version of the old work would not be hard since she still has the original designs and measurements.
The original execution of the work took Sailor, who lived in Hoboken at the time, 21 days to complete. Working from top to bottom on a 16-foot wide suspended scaffold, Sailor said that she and an assistant were “quite proud” that they had painted the mural almost exactly as they had envisioned it in her studio.
“When we got to the bottom, there was only one inch of wall space left there,” she said, “which is a good thing because we were not going back.”
The mural was commissioned by attorney Frank Marciano, who lived in the building at the time.
Led to marriage
But the operation was not an affair executed with military precision. Friends on their way to and from the PATH were frequently stopped and asked for help in lifting and lowering the scaffold. And Sailor’s now-husband, Charles Trowbridge, actually fell off the roof of the building while he was trying to help his then-artist-girlfriend with her mural.
“At the end of the day we needed to lower an aluminum sign off the building that was on the roof,” said Sailor, laughing as she thought back on the experience. “Charles went up there to release it. We had it on a rope system to lower it. I was on the ground and the sign started coming down. Just before it got to the ground a policeman came over and said, ‘Did you see that guy fall off the roof?’ It turns out that when he got to the top, a big wind whipped up and the sign hit him in the face, knocking him off.”
Trowbridge fell one story onto the concrete roof of a bank next door, breaking his hip. Six months later, the couple was engaged.
“My friends like to say that he asked me to marry him on the roof and that I pushed him off,” says Sailor, “but that’s not true.”
Even if Sailor’s mural is wiped off the face of the building forever, residents can still see her pieces in public places in other parts of town. The artist, who lived in Hoboken until 1987, has made a large contribution to the mile square’s public art collection. In addition to the Newark Street work, she has painted murals on a wall of the Universal Folding Box Company at 13th and Madison streets and inside the East L.A. restaurant on Fifth and Washington streets.
“I like the idea of art as an environment, not as an object,” she explained. “When you face something that big, it takes up all of your vision. I also like small work, because it really has the same effect. You have to get up really, really close and it is all that you can see.”
Sailor also has painted a smaller outdoor piece in front of Lady Jane’s Restaurant on 14th street. And while other artists who used to paint large outdoor works in the 1970s and 1980s have moved on, Sailor can still be found in her New York Avenue studio hard at work.
“She is the only one still doing it,” said Ray Guzman, who painted a giant mural on an Observer Street municipal garage that shows a view looking down from a high perch. Guzman, who also designed and painted many of the signs that adorn Washington Street shops, shelved his paints and brushes to launch a marketing and design firm known as Brainwave Studio with his wife, Renatta, in the 1980s.
While the future of the Newark Street building and other Hoboken murals is uncertain, Sailor continues to work on large-scale pieces. She has just completed a giant three-panel work painted on pieces of fabric as big as 17 by 24 feet for the upcoming Jersey City Artist Studio Tour, which will be held Oct. 21 and 22.
“If someone put together the right proposal I’d restore that piece,” she says of the Newark Street mural. “But I’m looking forward, not backward. I’m on to the next thing.”