A Dispute Erupts Over the Fate of a Mural

At the long-vacant northwest corner of Columbus Avenue and West 71st Street, Greg Hunt and his two partners envision a hip, sophisticated nightclub for 30- and 40-somethings.

They are well along in the approval process, embarking on a $2 million renovation of a darkened restaurant, which they hope to turn into Café Talullah. But a farmer and his oxen stand in their path.

A 40-year-old bas-relief mural of a Cuban sugar cane farm on the restaurant’s exterior has attracted the notice of some local preservationists, and they are now battling Mr. Hunt’s plan to tear it down as part of his renovation. The preservationists call the mural an important vestige of the area’s heritage, and are asking the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to make Mr. Hunt preserve the mural as part of his renovation. The storefront lies within the Upper West Side Historic District, so alterations to the exterior must be approved by the commission.

Mr. Hunt calls the mural “sappy,” historically insignificant and not in keeping with his planned décor.

“Our theme is sophisticated and casual, and he wants us to have two cows outside,” he said, referring to Michael Gotkin, the preservationist spearheading the save-the-mural campaign. Mr. Gotkin is a consultant for a local preservation group, Landmark West!

Mr. Gotkin mounted a spirited defense of the mural at a commission hearing last week, prompting a discussion among commission members. A vote on the mural’s fate was postponed.

The mural was created in 1971 for Victor’s Cafe, a renowned Cuban restaurant that thrived on the corner in the 1960s and ’70s before moving to Midtown in 1980. The mural has remained, even as Penang, a Malaysian restaurant, opened in the space in 1996, then closed several years ago.

Mr. Gotkin said the mural was an important remnant of the area’s history, particularly in terms of the restaurant’s patronage, which included a large local Cuban population as well as a heavily gay clientele. The mural depicts a team of oxen working in a field of sugar cane, along with a well-built, shirtless worker, which “may be a nod to the thriving local gay scene in the area at the time,” Mr. Gotkin said.

He called the mural a rare artifact of the way the neighborhood once was, before wave upon wave of gentrification.

Victor’s Café was opened in 1963 by Victor del Corral, a Cuban immigrant. In addition to the large local Cuban population, the cafe attracted an eclectic crowd, from beatniks to classical music lovers, actors, musicians and celebrities, including Liza Minnelli.

Mr. Gotkin is no shrinking violet when it comes to guarding local murals and mosaics. In 2002, when a Max Spivak mosaic mural at West 104th Street, installed in 1947 inside a coffee shop, was partially dismantled during the restaurant’s conversion into a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop, Mr. Gotkin pulled discarded pieces of it out of a Dumpster and helped to preserve it. In 1997, he helped to save the colorful mosaic tile benches around Grant’s Tomb from destruction during a renovation.

Mr. Gotkin argued at the commission meeting that the mural, by a Cuban artist named Arturo Martin, should be considered within the larger tradition of Cuban mural painting. He showed photographs of similar murals he saw when he spent a summer in Cuba, and old snapshots of the Victor’s Café mural from Mr. del Corral’s relatives.

For his part, Mr. Hunt said few locals other than Mr. Gotkin saw anything of worth in the mural. He noted that his renovation plans, including the demolition of the mural, were approved by the preservation committee of the local community board. He said his new space, which he hopes to open in September, would create 40 jobs.

Mr. Hunt said he was born and raised in the area and even patronized Victor’s years ago.

“Victor was not exactly an art maven,” he said of Mr. del Corral, who died in 2006 at 84.

“On the Upper West Side, there’s always going to be someone to oppose anything anyone wants to do,” said Mr. Hunt, who is also an owner of Amsterdam Billiards. “The location has been an eyesore for years and we’re investing close to $2 million to renovate it and make it wonderful again. I don’t want to open with two decrepit, sappy cows. For anyone to tell us what our design should be, is not fair.”

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