WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Last month, the city of Wilmington’s Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) voted to deny a request that would have allowed a mural painted on the stairwell wall leading to a local bar, the Pour House, claiming the artwork was a violation of city code and is considered a sign.
For the most part, the mural not visible from street level, and does not advertise or promote the name of the bar, yet, the city, so far, is standing firm that the mural has to go — but the owner is not ready to give up just yet and is planning on appealing the decision.
In Wilmington’s historic districts, a certificate of appropriateness (COA) is required for most alterations to a building’s exterior — this includes signs.
“A Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) is issued by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission for exterior changes to the property including the primary building, accessory structures and the site. The COA is approved based on the Wilmington Design Guidelines for Historic Districts and Landmarks,” according to the city of Wilmington.
But not all murals are prohibited in Wilmington.
Just one block away another mural sits prominently at street level.
Text along with smaller plaques with company names border the North Carolina flag painted with the iconic Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and Cape Fear River inside of it. The words “I Believe in Wilmington” are posted above the painting and a smaller text reading #Secondstreetmural sits below it.
For the city, this mural is okay. The one at the Pour House is not.
It all comes down to the city’s definitions (and lack thereof) along with local historic districts.
Despite being situated in a historic part of Wilmington, the Second Street mural sits just outside of the local historic district that governs what can be done to exteriors of buildings.
“The painting on the side of the old Coastal Cupcakes building was permitted as a sign. In that district, wall signs are allowed up to 200 square feet, not to exceed 20% of the wall to which attached,” Zoning Administrator Kathryn Thurston said.
While the Second Street mural is located in a national historic district, it is not in a local historic district, like the Pour House, and therefore, does not require a COA.
City planning staff did not respond to the question as to whether or not city officials have considered adding definitions for public art to avoid such conflicts in the future.
The fact that the city defines a mural as a sign comes down to the fact that there are no definitions or standards for murals and art in city code.
“We do not currently have specific standards for murals or public art, so we currently allow them through the classification as a sign,” Thurston said.
The code does, however, define a sign.
“Sign: Any structure, part thereof, or device attached thereto or painted or represented thereon or any material or thing, illuminated or otherwise, which displays or includes any numeral, letter, word, model, banner, emblem, insignia, device, trademark or other representation used as or in the nature of an announcement. A sign may also consist of sources of illumination, unmarked pennants or banners, streamers, or any other devices or materials which are displayed to draw attention to a charitable, residential, institutional, commercial, or industrial establishment of activity,” Thurston said.
Associate Planner Jeff Walton, in an email, explained that staff took the “approach” to classify the mural as a sign and then require it meet the standards.
That being said, the owner of Pour House and his attorney challenged that definition applying to the mural since there is no announcement.
“The mural is neither used as an announcement nor displayed to draw attention to the bar. Rather, the mural is simply a below-grade piece of decorative art that exists for art’s sake. It announces nothing. Nor does it draw attention to the establishment, for it exists solely below ground at a location where a person has already chosen to enter the bar at the basement entrance. The only thing that draws attention to the bar is the already-permitted sign that is above grade. Accordingly, I do not consider the mural to be subject to Chapter 18, Article 12 Regulations,” Attorney for the Pour House Stephen Coggins wrote.
Despite the reasoning, the HPC still voted 6-2 to deny the Pour House’s request to approve the mural. The decision to cite the bar for the mural gathered attention from locals.
Even before the decision was made, members of the HPC foresaw the possibility of having to answer difficult questions in regards to the request.
“The handbook towards the end mentions having a spokesperson. Well, since WECT did that lovely story about the mural at the Pour House it isn’t inconceivable we may need one at tonight’s meeting. So which one of you will be jumping on the hand-grenade if a reporter is there?” HPC member Stephen Sulke wrote in an email to members of the planning staff.
While the appeal was unsuccessful, other business owners in downtown offered their input on the mural and asked the city to allow it.
“In this case, I don’t believe the mural should be interpreted as a sign but more of a piece of art or a display not unlike the large windows directly above the staircase in question. The mural doesn’t contain any logos or signage pertaining to The Pour House designed to advertise, it is simply used to make the stairwell leading to the business more attractive and in my opinion speaks to the uniqueness this business provides. In addition, the mural contains no language or images that would make it offensive to the public. I feel as though it should be likened to a statue, wall relief sculpture or a fountain that is used to decorate a building rather than signage,” James Smith of Fork n Cork wrote.
Similarly, the former owner of The Whiskey Bar, Alecia Michell, submitted a letter to the HPC arguing that the mural is “virtually imperceptible by the general public” due to the fact it is mostly underground.
The owner of the Pour House, Joe Apkarian, said he is appealing the decision of the HPC to the city’s Board of Adjustment. The Board of Adjustment meets on Oct. 15, however, the agenda for that meeting has not yet been released so it is unclear if the appeal will be heard at that meeting.