Art or a sign? Pour House owner asks Wilmington to allow mural painted on basement wall

Art or sign?

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A Wilmington businessman facing repercussions for painting a mural on the outside of his bar in Downtown is appealing the violations to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and requesting a certificate of appropriateness (COA) be issued after the fact.

The Pour House is located in the Atlantic Trust Building which is located at the corner of Market Street and Front Street. The bar, owned by Joe Apkarian, is located in the basement of the building and accessed by an exterior stairwell, last year he commissioned an artist to paint a mural within the stairwell -- now he is facing repercussions from the city.

The city claims the mural is not art, but a sign, and is subject to the same sign regulations in the rest of the Historic Overlay District.

“A mural is considered a wall sign. In the CBD, there is limit of a total 200 square feet of signage, including any wall signs, projecting signs, and awning signs,” according to the HPC’s agenda.

Although it was painted last year, the city only recently decided to pursuit the issue after receiving a complaint from the city’s historic preservation planner about the mural.

“On April 29, 2020 and June 9, 2020, code enforcement staff conducted a site inspection responding to an email from the Historic Preservation Planner. The complaint was the installation of a mural wall sign on the walls of the recessed basement steps without issuance of a COA,” according to city staff’s narrative.

A view looking down into the stairwell at Pour House.
A view looking down into the stairwell at Pour House. (Source: City of Wilmington)

According to city staff, only changes to buildings in the Central Business District - Historic Overlay District that can be seen from the public right-of-way are subject to review by the city.

Since the mural is located below-grade and cannot be seen from the street level, Apkarian says he was not aware that a COA would be required for it.

“The only way to see the mural is to look down into the stairway area that was constructed in 2004. It did not occur to The Pour Haus, LLC, that a historical building Certificate of Appropriateness was required to paint a facade that never existed before 2004 and cannot be seen,”Apkarian’s attorney, Steve Coggins wrote in the appeal.

The city’s narrative claims “...the sign can be seen from Market, South Front, and North Front streets.”

The building itself dates back to circa 1910, but the exterior stairwell are much less historic.

According to the appeal, the basement has existed since then but the exterior access to the basement was constructed in 2004 after a redevelopment of the building.

“My information is that the building from its inception had a basement, but that it could be accessed only from the inside ... a local developer with strong downtown ties ‘redeveloped’ the basement and in 2004 created an outside entrance by excavating the area adjacent to the south-facing building wall,” according to Coggins.

The decision to approve or deny the request for a COA is up to the HPC, however, city staff is recommending several conditions if the board does approve the request.

"If the HPC elects to issue a COA for this request, staff recommends that the following conditions be applied:

  1. The sign shall not exceed 50 square feet.
  2. Signage and construction shall comply with all regulations and requirements of the Land Development Code and any other applicable federal, state or local laws, ordinances and regulations, as well as any conditions ordered by the Historic Preservation Commission.
  3. Changes to the project from that described in the application and submittals, shall be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission, or if minor in nature as specified in the Wilmington Design Guidelines, by Commission staff through the administrative bypass process,"

The HPC willl meet on Sept. 10 to discuss the request along with other items on the agenda, the full narrative can be seen below.

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