KEVIN LEININGER: Can historic buildings and modern art coexist? As it turns out, they can

Addeline Griswold, left, will paint a mural on the wall of Fancy Staple at 1111 Broadway owned by Taber Olinger. The building is in a local historic district that gives the city control over exterior changes but officials say modern art and old buildings can coexist. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Tim Parsley is dwarfed by his 5,700-square-foot bison mural on The Landing. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
This mural was added to Pint & Slice on South Calhoun St. in 2014. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Don Orban
Bill Brown (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

There are 83 local historic districts in Fort Wayne, areas in which the desire to preserve the past requires property owners to receive city permission before making exterior alterations or repairs — including the choice of paint color. There is also a growing public-art movement that has inspired the conversion of numerous old brick walls into brightly colored and often modernistic murals.

What happens when the two movements collide? Not much, as it turns out. It seems history and artistic expression can coexist after all, and that’s a good thing for lovers of both.

“I’ve got murals in my store and I’m a big fan of art. It’s exciting when building owners do art downtown. I’m here to stay and wanted to beautify the corridor,” said Taber Olinger, owner of Fancy Staple at 1111 Broadway, who last month asked the city’s Historic Preservation Commission for permission to paint a 10-by-50 mural on the alley side of her building. Because the building is in an historic district she was prepared to be persuasive, but she needn’t have fretted. Work on the mural, by local artist Addeline Griswold, is expected to start next month — and the design will be decidedly contemporary even though the building is more than a century old.

That’s because city officials know a positive trend when they see one — and don’t want to get in the way unnecessarily.

“We see murals are getting popular, and asked for a policy to guide us,” said Historic Preservation Planner Don Orban, who said the still-unwritten policy seems to boil down to this: If the exterior wall has already been painted, as most of Olinger’s had been, the commission won’t stand in the way or even try to influence the mural’s design.

Even though Olinger was the first property owner to appear before the board seeking approval for a mural, her building will not be the first in a local historic district to have one. That distinction goes to Pint & Slice at 816 S. Calhoun St., which in 2014 invited Yis (NoseGo) Goodwin to create two very contemporary murals. Four years later, University of St. Francis Art Department Chairman Tim Parsely painted a huge bison (named “This Land Was Made For You And Me”) on the building at 126 W. Columbia St. on the “Landing.”

Although a buffalo certainly has historic overtones, the subject was not chosen for that reason, Parsley said.

“When I met with (building owner and Steel Dynamics CEO) Mark Millett, his office had Western artwork. And I have my own interest in American history,” Parsely said. “So it was a fortunate partnership.”

Both previous murals were approved by the review commission’s staff, not the full board. But the guidance provided by the board last month will prove valuable as future requests come, as they surely will.

Griswold, who currently works at Nawa — the Asian restaurant in the Landing building graced by Parsley’s bison — is planning a bright, cheerful mural with a “neighborhood” theme. “It’s really cool to be part of this and to make Fort Wayne more unique. Hopefully this will generate a lot of foot traffic.”

That’s an important point. Historic buildings’ best hope for survival and restoration is their usefulness. If regulations make use of old buildings more difficult or costly, business owners may look elsewhere. But if historic buildings can enhance business — such as through increased awareness created by murals — their desirability will only increase.

“This is a modern interpretation of painted wall signs,” said Historic Preservation Planner Creager Smith, referring to the faded signs that still adorn many downtown buildings, or the iconic “Mail Pouch” ads once common on barns. “This helps allow the buildings to remain useful.”

All of which is good news to the folks at the Downtown Improvement District, which helped start the downtown art movement with the creation of the “Art This Way” program in 2016 that has worked to beatify alleys and other areas. “Our goal is to create a 24/7 public art gallery that will help downtown become a destination,” said Director Bill Brown. “Public art gives the public realm a soul.”

That was followed last year by the creation of the City’s Public Art Commission, which is working to bring art to parks and other public spaces. Today, Orban estimated, there are as many as 20 murals in Fort Wayne, with more on the way. And it seems neither history nor art will be compromised in the process — and may even mutually benefit.

What do you know: a happy ending.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.