Nostalgic wall mural obliterated

A Takoma Park mural depicting historically nostalgic scenes was obliterated this summer – now a nostalgic memory itself.

Painted in 1985 on a convenience store side wall at Carroll and Grant Avenues, it showed a mix of long-gone scenes, including a  railroad crossing guard officer, a Dinky Line trolley car, a hot air balloon, and an elephant from the carnival that used to set up at what is now called Takoma Junction.

The mural, painted by local artist Sandra Philpott was part of an revitalization effort. That effort included naming the area “Takoma Junction.”

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A detail of the mural by Sandra Philpott. Photo by Julie Wiatt.

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The corner storefront before the mural was painted over. Photo from Mainstreet Takoma.

Last month the Takoma Park city councilmembers expressed dismay about the mural paint-over.  However, they found that there was nothing they could do about it. According to an agreement at the time it was painted, the property owner had the sole right to remove the artwork, with no obligation to communicate with the city about it.

As part of renovations for a new client, the owner repainted the wall, covering the mural. The storefront has been empty for many years.

The new tenant will be the Spring Mill Bread Company, which will open a bakery cafe with indoor and outdoor seating. A fall 2014 opening is planned.

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The interior under renovation. Photo by Bill Brown.

This is not the first time murals have been painted over at this location.

The same artist painted portraits of local people on the storefront’s boarded-up windows. The art became so weathered, however, it was considered not salvable.

The larger mural also had weathering issues – the artist originally used house paint which deteriorated over time and had to be re-touched at least once.

The 2008 Takoma Voice article below describes the mural and others, with many fascinating historical tidbits – and insight into Takoma Junction’s revitalization struggle.

The author Diana Kohn is Historic Takoma, Inc. president.

 

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TAKOMA ARCHIVES • DIANA KOHN

The nostalgic murals of Takoma Park

JUNE, 2008 – The most prominent landmarks at Takoma Junction these days are the large murals that adorn the three buildings facing the intersection.

Other landmarks are long gone: General Carroll’s manor house. which dominated the corner for nearly a 100 years, was demolished in 1960 after years of neglect.  The trolley line stopped running years before that.

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The wall mural when “TJ’s” occupied the storefront.

And the fire station at the outside edge of the Junction awaits a long-delayed knockdown-and-replacement, which will erase its familiar stone facade from the streetscape.

The storefronts remain much as they have always been since the early 1930s – small businesses modestly providing local residents with groceries, haircuts, electrical repairs, drycleaning, even picture framing. But thanks to these murals the corner has a distinctive character.

That was the intent. In 1984, the neighborhood was struggling with the departure of Barcelona Nuts, the largest industrial establishment in the city.

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Photo by Julie Wiatt.

Ed McMahon served on the committee that launched the revitalization effort. One tactic was christening the intersection as Takoma Junction.

McMahon was also chair of the Public Arts Committee, and he suggested a second tactic: creating what he called a “placemaker,” outdoor public art which could help define and reinforce the identity of the area.

He had already had success with murals in Old Takoma and urged a similar approach in the needed revival at the Junction.

There was a perfect canvas in the brick wall of the storefront at the corner of Sherman and Carroll. Sandra Philpott, a local artist who had participated in the Old Town murals, offered a nostalgic collage evoking Takoma’s Victorian past and the committee gave the go-ahead.

Phillpott gathered elements from historic photos to create a unique image. The policeman is Sgt. John Barry, the crossing guard at the railroad in the days before the underpass. Honoring the trolley cars that passed through the Junction, she portrayed the beloved “Dinky line” on its way to Sligo Creek. Children and flags and dogs aspoke of the bucolic childhood possible in this railroad suburb six miles from DC.

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The elephant (and cats). Photo by Julie Wiatt.

Then there was the enigmatic elephant, seemingly added from her imagination.

But, folks such as Roland Dawes in his barber shop half a block away vividly remember the carnivals that brought the elephants to town in his childhood. “They came twice a year and set up a Ferris Wheel in the vacant lot on the corner. There were games of chance, and the elephants.”

In addition to the 14 ft by 16 ft mural, Philpott created a set of five “trompe l’oeil” family portraits tucked into each of the boarded-up windows on the side of the building. They represented the diverse set of personalities important to Takoma history, including:

• B.F. Gilbert (the visionary behind Takoma Park),
• Pamela Favorite (early storekeeper),
• Lee Jordan (founder of the Boys and Girls Club),
• Goldie Hawn (actress),
• Anna Maria Ariaza of Guatamela and Ty Eam of Cambodia (recent arrivals who represent Takoma Park’s ethnic heritage and diversity).

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The window panels depicting Lee Jordan, Goldie Hawn, Anna Maria Ariaza of Guatamela and Ty Eam, and Pamela Favorite.

In the years since Philpott finished her work and moved to Harrisburg, High’s Convenience Store has given way to TJ’s Market but the mural remains, albeit somewhat worse for wear.

It turns out that Sandra used ordinary house paint and applied it directly to the bricks. Even a recent touchup several years back failed to halt the deterioration.

The portraits faded more quickly than the larger mural and were eventually painted over with other images. Luckily, a plaque commemorating their names remains on the wall near the mural.

The carnivals halted once Shell built a gas station on the empty lot (perhaps 1940) and there was no longer any place to set up.

Ironically, that gas station became the next canvas. Abandoned sometime in the Sixties it was briefly resurrected as the “Sister Cities Thrift Store.”

For more than a decade, Takoma Park enjoyed a rich cultural exchange with its Sister City of Jequie, Brazil. Students from each town tregularly switched places. The thrift store was a needed source of funds.

By 1990, however, the cement block building was vacant again. The Revitalization Committee seized the opportunity to create a pocket park on the corner dedicated to B.Y. Morrison, the genius behind azaleas.

McMahon remembered using open space money to fund the project. Public art once again became part of the package.

A new call for projects went out nationwide, and more than 100 proposals were received. But one local artist — Jim Colwell, a piano restorer by trade — had a winning idea.

McMahon recalls that Colwell’s jazz combo, reflecting the diversity he saw in Takoma Park, was the hands-down favorite of the Arts Committee.

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“Guardians of the Neighborhood.” Photo by Bill Brown

Jim remembers “There was some controversy with the design. I originally had an old man playing the guitar on the left, but I was asked to substitute a Latina. And the central figure was dressed in a lower-cut dress than you see today. Even with the alterations some folks took umbrage.

“When I was installing the finished mural, the owner of Turner Electric would come over every day to rail about how much he hated it. I just keep saying I was the hired help.”

Today the exotic caricatures in the mural, known officially as “Guardians of the Neighborhood,” define the Junction as much as the Victorian mural across the street.

In an effort to ensure the survival of “Guardians,” the city has slated the building for roof repair and replacement of the tiles on the pillars.

Thanks to a grant from the reconstituted Takoma Park Arts and Humanities Commission, John Hume of Sligo Tile Co. will replace the tiles with decorative tiles. Designed to reflect “Tales of Mystery and Wonder.” the new tiles will depict Motorcat, Roscoe the Rooster and the elephant of carnival fame among other fanciful images.

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John Hume’s decorative tiles. Photo by Bill Brown.

The most recent mural is the largest, covering the side wall of the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op. A new arrival at the Junction, the Co-op took over the Truner Electric building (which once housed a Safeway) in 1998.

In 2003, the large blank expanse of brick inspired Co-op employee Aslia Schwartz to envision a quirky tree motif to help identify the store.

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Aslia Schwartz’s Coop mural. Photo by Bill Brown.

Look carefully at the artwork and you will see how she created a mosaic effect by painting each brick a different shade of brown.

Collectively the three murals have not solved the underlying problem of how to revive the Junction, but they have enhanced the historic context and identity. even as the debate continues about the possible future scenarios for Takoma Junction.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.