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Artist Paula Scher responds to NJPAC plans to destroy her famous mural

Cathedral House 24 Rector Street Newark
NJPAC plans to demolish the Cathedral House. Photo by Darren Tobia.

Last month, the NJPAC appeared before the Newark Historic Conservation Commission to plead its case for the demolition of a protected landmark. The Cathedral House, built in 1941, stands in the way of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment plan, they said.

It was not an easy case to make. Not only is the building listed on the national register, but it played a pivotal role in black history. Also, there is nothing structurally wrong with this. As a last resort, the art organization hired an expert to speak ill of a work of art that the NJPAC had commissioned and praised.

Emily Everett, an architectural historian for AECOM, testified for the NJPAC that Paula Scher’s famous mural detracted from the integrity of the former red-brick rectory.

“I think painting the exterior brick walls from a conservation standpoint is somewhat problematic,” Everett said.

In the two decades since Scher painted his typographic mural, he hasn’t heard it called problematic. Quite the opposite. He has been featured in books such as Anatomy of designand has been exhibited in prestigious museums, including Cooper Hewitt.

“I love the building – many graphic designers love the building,” said Paula Scher.

Paula Scher mural Newark
Paula Scher’s mural for Planned Parenthood. Photo courtesy of Pentagram.

An anecdote appears Anatomy of design in which Scher, who still works for NJPAC, recalls a meeting with the organization’s president John Schreiber, who asked her to “transform an old shabby building into something bright and appropriate for a school.”

“The building didn’t have much integrity before I painted it,” Scher told Jersey Digs. “What I was proud of is that he launched the supergraphic revival.”

Supergraphic, which had a cultural moment in the 1970s, is an art style that uses enlarged, brazen letters and images as design elements that communicate information. The revival spawned iconic artwork, murals and advertisements, including the Sher’s Planned Parenthood mural.

Meanwhile, the Newark HPC voted 3-2 for the demolition provided the building facade and entrance arch were preserved. Demolition takes five votes yes. But residents of New Jersey’s largest city know that developers find ways around similar restrictions. In fact, the NJPAC had promised to preserve the building next to the Cathedral House as well. The former Ballantine Brewery, an art deco industrial building, caught fire after years of neglect and was considered too dangerous to preserve. Such loopholes are often exploited.

Scher said he doesn’t want to hinder the NJPAC’s progress, but hopes the building can be saved. The plan to demolish the Cathedral House will be heard by the city planning council on 1 August. “It’s an institution and it has to stay healthy,” said Paula Scher. “If that’s what they need – and it’s the only way to do it – I don’t know how to assess the value of saving it.”

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