Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The backstory: What's wrong with this picture?

Directly off the Veterans Memorial Bridge, at the intersection of Third and Chestnut Streets, stands a vast mural of a clockmaker in his shop. The mural is so vast, in fact, that it covers the entire north side of a house where thousands of visitors and commuters have marveled at it on their way through town. The painting was commissioned by the renowned National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC), based in Columbia. Behind the mural, however, is another story, one hidden behind coats of paint and layers of controversy.

For Elaine Beckley, the giant mural has evolved into one giant headache, one lasting well over a decade. She and her husband, James, bought the home in October 2000 shortly after the mural was painted. At that time, the house was bank-owned, the previous owners having vacated in 1998. Mrs. Beckley guesses they moved out right after the painting was completed - and after signing a 20-year easement for the mural that eventually became quite a draw for visitors. Some thought the house itself was the watch and clock museum. Mrs. Beckley, accustomed to leaving her doors unlocked, was often surprised to find uninvited guests traipsing through her home, looking for timepieces. But the worst was yet to come.

Over the next few years, the Beckleys continued renovating the home. All was relatively well until 2002 when Mrs. Beckley noticed a crack in the mural. She immediately contacted the NAWCC, and informed them that the mural would need to be repaired. She stated her concern about the potential for moisture to damage the interior walls. After several conversations with NAWCC to no avail, the Beckleys sent them a letter, summarizing their concerns about property damage and property devaluation. Their letter also noted the lack of maintenance on the mural, which is the sole responsibility of the museum, as stated in the easement contract. The response from the museum's insurance company a few months later was "Since there appears to be no negligence on the part of our insured, we are not able to consider payment for any damages sustained to the wall of your home."

Two photos of the lower left side of the mural, showing cracks and other damage.

"I didn't even ask for payment," she told Columbia Spy. "I didn't ask for compensation. I asked for cooperation."

Not satisfied with the NAWCC response, she undertook an investigation of her own and found that the problem was with the paint itself, which did not allow moisture to escape. The paint had been applied to the century-old stucco-on-brick exterior wall, and due to the paint's inability to "breathe," moisture was filtering through her interior walls, causing spots. Moisture was also finding its way through weak points on the exterior, creating cracks and blotchiness on the mural.

Cracks and other damage on the lower right side

Her concerns went unheeded until the summer of 2006, when she received a letter addressed to "Resident" from the NAWCC stating concerns about ivy growing on the mural.

Blistering and cracks on the interior of the north wall

Mrs. Beckley used the opportunity to respond with a letter outlining results of an inspection by a mason who found that the condition of the wall was "hazardous." In his opinion, the "badly deteriorated" wall needed cosmetic work in areas, and the entire wall needed to be sealed with Fortis paint to prevent further interior damage. (Fortis is a highly durable professional paint.) The letter noted "bubbled paint, expanded and bulged cracks, powdery and disintegrating plaster, peeling paint, exposed crumbling bricks" on the interior of the north wall. None of the other interior walls showed similar conditions. NAWCC's response was that the problems did not result from water seepage through the mural since the wall was sealed before painting. Although the Beckleys offered to repair the exterior wall in accordance with contractors' recommendations, NAWCC refused to allow any changes.

Cracks on the interior of the north wall

Disappointed, Mrs. Beckley enlisted the help of Dr. Larry Laird, owner of Global Time Wizard, a watch and clock repair business, and an NAWCC member. Dr. Laird has restored several houses similar to that of the Beckleys and has done insurance reconstructions on multimillion dollar houses. He undertook his own investigation of the mural and submitted his findings in a 2008 report to NAWCC, among them:

• Improper priming of the wall with an oil-based primer. A water-based primer had been used instead.

• No consideration or mitigation of the long-term effects of sealing such a wall, as well as that of vibration from highway traffic next to the residence.

• Lack of aluminum or rubber cap on the upper edge of the wall along the roof line.

• Evidence of peeling in a 1998 photo before the mural was painted.

Dr. Laird recommended removing mortar in problem areas and having them repaired, reprimed, and repainted. He suggested applying for Lancaster County funding, such as tourism funds, restoration grants, or long-term loans. He also recommended state and local agencies that could help with funding. He urged the museum to act quickly to prevent further damage to the mural.

NAWCC never responded.

As things stand now, the wall still has not been repaired and continues to deteriorate. Mrs. Beckley is resigned to a waiting game. In 2018, the easement expires, at which time she plans to have the mural removed and the wall repaired - unless NAWCC offers her an iron-clad contract in the meantime, in which the appropriate repairs and modifications are made. If not, the mural goes.

"I own the wall." she said. "I have a house to protect. That's where I live."

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