News Column

Stillwater mural gets the kibosh

June 6, 2014

By Elizabeth Mohr, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

June 06--Now you see it, now you don't.

So went the lifespan of a colorful, beer-themed mural on an old train car in downtown Stillwater, which met an untimely end this week when it was covered by a coat of brown paint.

The mural -- commissioned by the Freight House restaurant and bar, paid for by Pabst, and created by St. Paul artist Davit Witt -- was voted down by the city's Historic Preservation Commission and painted over by restaurant management.

"We got our mural going and loved the direction it was going and then got a letter saying we needed to go through a review process," said Brian Ingram, a Freight House manager. "We thought it fit perfect. It was a caboose that was covered in graffiti ... so we thought it was a very positive improvement for the area."

The committee reviews signs and murals, among other proposed architectural changes in the downtown area, based on city guidelines.

According to the historic preservation design manual, "Murals on 'non-contributing' buildings have been allowed with individual review, provided they have a historic theme, and do not advertise an existing business or company."

"(Murals) have to be historic in nature and fitting for the historic district," said Jeff Johnson, vice chair of the Historic Preservation Commission. "This one had a lot of images of Pabst beer and images of cactus and things relative to the Southwest. So we denied it."

Ingram said restaurant management decided to paint over the mural rather than ask the artist to change it.

"We talked about it, but after the meeting with the historical (committee), no matter what we did to that mural, there was no way they were going to approve any rendering of that painting," Ingram said.

The mural was commissioned in an effort to spruce up the old train caboose, which was a frequent target for graffiti, Ingram said. The funding came from Pabst, which is why it featured the company's products. And the bar has a country-western theme, so the mural's subject matter seemed a good fit for the establishment, Ingram said.

But not everyone agrees.

"Stillwater has a strong identity -- based on its history, the wild and scenic St. Croix River, the many artists who call it home, and lots more. It's not Denver or Phoenix, it's not the Wild West with cowboys and cactus," said Stillwater resident Greg Seitz. "But the mural ignored the place where it was to be very visibly placed. That makes it more of a well-designed billboard, not public art."

Artist David Witt said he wasn't informed there was controversy brewing and learned that his work had been essentially white-washed when a friend reached out via social media.

"Someone, I think it was Wednesday morning, tweeted, 'What happened in Stillwater that they painted over your mural?' I said, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' " Witt recalled.

He was sent a photo showing someone from the Freight House with a roller, painting over the not-quite-finished mural.

Witt said he believes the restaurant covered it up "because they didn't want to fight city hall on the rules." While he understands there are rules, he said he is frustrated that he put work into creating something that was destroyed without notice.

"I was in shock when I first saw it and pretty angry and upset, because nobody has talked to me about it," Witt said. "But the anger has subsided because the story has spread. Now I want to know what can be done to prevent this from happening again. What steps do I have to take? It was a lot of time and I really liked that painting."

Ingram said he misunderstood the review process and mistakenly assumed that the caboose -- which was brought onto the property in the 1990s and is used for storage -- wasn't subject to the same restrictions as the historic building that houses the restaurant and bar.

"Really the whole thing was to make it a beautiful area and to make it a place where you could stop and take a photo. Why not have a beautiful painting there rather than some graffiti? That was our frustration with the committee's ruling," Ingram said.

The restaurant's managers plan to have another mural and hope that Witt will remain on board, but they'll follow all the rules this time, Ingram said.

If that happens, there may be a more favorable outcome, the commission's Johnson said.

"It is a great place for a mural," he said. "There is an opportunity to do some great things with it."

Elizabeth Mohr can be reached at 651-228-5162. Follow her at


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Source: Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN)

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