Thursday, June 27, 2013

Some Ironies about Restoring the Mattingly Mural

There's news this week of a campaign to fund restoration of the montage of silent movie stars on the backside of the Elsinore.

So what happens when someone finally develops the parking lot on the other side of the alley?

Mattingly Mural:  Visible because of Parkway blight
and a surface parking lot!
From the paper:
The Friends of Mattingly's Mural and the Historic Elsinore Theatre's Board of Directors have begun a formal drive to raise the remaining $10,000 needed to restore the theater’s mural.

An anonymous donor kick-started the effort in January by giving $10,000. The total budget for the project is $20,000.

The late artist James Mattingly painted the 68-by-65-foot mural, “Theatrical Heartscape,” in 1984. A tribute to the theater's Vaudeville origins, it pictures early film stars Theda Bara, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and W.C. Fields.

“It’s a lively tribute,” said theater director Steve Martin. “Obviously the ravages of time have faded it. It’s a great iconic gateway to downtown. It’s part of downtown. We want to restore it to its original grandeur.”

The support group and the theater have spent the past few months studying the project and choosing a restoration expert, Portland-based Dan Cohen of ArtFX Murals.

The plan is to clean the wall, repaint the mural and seal it in late August or early September, when the weather is likely to cooperate, Martin said.
The reason the mural was painted was because the side of the building was visible over the parking lot.  It was to decorate a void and reduce blight.  And if it has come to function as something of a gateway, it does so not because it presides over a gate, but because it presides over and uplifts something that should be at least a little shameful - a sites of demolition, the empty footprints where more valuable and more interesting things used to be.  The 1926 Sanborn map shows homes here where the parking lot is today.  (Not to mention the adjacent Capitol Theater...but that's another story.)

Mural at center on alley:  nearly 1/2 of block is parking
Will restoring the mural today create more of a reason to oppose development when the surface parking lot finally has more value as a building?  Eh, maybe, maybe not.

But the proclamation of it as "gateway" is a small sign of how deeply entrenched is our auto-centric culture.  As a gateway it depends on sight lines through the emptiness of the lot, and to enshrine it as such in some way assumes the parking lot persists and there won't be a time when the mural is no longer visible.

Movie technology has changed a lot.  We went from silent film to the talkies, and now we have mostly transitioned from the glorious (and sometimes incendiary!) chemistry of film stock to digital.  It won't be long before computer animation jumps the uncanny valley and is able to render realistic humans in action.

Transportation technology and social patterns are also changing at this moment.  The car engine is starting the shift away from gasoline, and the hegemony of the drive-alone trip looks like it is starting to recede.  There's the google car, jitney and car-sharing applications, and things we aren't imagining just now seem likely to burst onto the scene in the next decade or two.

It's appropriate - even a little poignant - in a way that figures from silent film would preside here, looking out over something and a way of mobility that may be doomed and is certainly going to change.

The Scupture Garden:  Empty-ish lot also on the Parkway!
Public art is a fine thing.  It enlivens the walk and gives opportunity for visual delight.  But I wonder if it might be more proper to let the mural fade gradually with a view towards the time when the parking lot is redeveloped.  Isn't a mural like this a time-delimited work?  It doesn't seem like this sort of thing is often done with the expectation or hope of permanence.   Instead, isn't it done as a temporary measure while the neighborhood waits for something better?

(And shouldn't we be investing in public art in areas pleasant for walking, rather than over asphalt and concrete along the Parkway?)

What do you think?  It's on the alley, so it wouldn't become totally invisible even when the lot is built up, and maybe its visibility on the alley alone makes the restoration worthwhile.  Maybe it would become a bit of local lore, something you have to traverse the alley to see - not a gateway, but a more hidden pearl.


Jim Scheppke said...

Great post! I agree. Let it be. And hope for something better than a parking lot on that block someday.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for having the courage to speak unpopular truths and not indulging the in the groupthink that is crippling this city.

Sarah Owens said...

Let it be, like the totems on Haida Gwaii.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The comparison with the totems is a good one! Thanks for sharing.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Over at On the Way, Bonnie Hull presents more of the pro-preservation point. She notes, "Jim Mattingly’s idea was to 'enrich and beautify the wall facing a major access route into Salem,'" - so perhaps there's more to the gateway idea than I had supposed. At the same time, the focus on the "access route" still kinda elides that it faces the alley and parking lot before it faces the parkway.

Additionally, there are some pretty great images of Bicycling Bud Clark at the dedication ceremony. (In addition to his "expose yourself to art" poster, there's a terrific poster of him on a bike in front of City Hall during his tenure as Mayor of Portland.)