When Dr. Robert Andrews first proposed that a series of historically accurate, educational murals be painted on downtown buildings in Punta Gorda, Florida, some residents opposed the idea, insisting the murals would be nothing more than “graffiti.” Business leaders, on the other hand, loved the idea. They formed the Punta Gorda Historic Mural Society (PGHMS) in 1994 and successfully lobbied the City Council for permission to paint the first one on a large blank wall of a former shopping center located on U.S. 41 Northbound. Once the first mural was completed, others quickly followed, and residents who had initially opposed the idea began taking guests around town, proudly showing off the works of art.
Over the next ten years, more than 90 murals were painted at 20 different sites. Then disaster struck. On Friday, August 13, 2004, Hurricane Charley roared onshore at Punta Gorda as a category 4 storm with sustained winds in excess of 145 miles per hour. In one short hour, 11,000 of the city’s 16,000 homes were totally destroyed, along with six schools and six fire stations. About 300 businesses were leveled. And half of the mural sites were gone.
Five years later, the occasional vacant lot is still visible, but buildings that were damaged beyond repair have been torn down and debris has been carted away. In their place, new facilities have sprouted. Downtown has colorful new shops, luxury hotels, and a new convention center. Schools and fire stations were rebuilt with state-of-the-art facilities. The murals of Punta Gorda are also slowly being recreated.
The short-term goal of the PGHMS is to have the destroyed murals repainted by 2010; their longer term goal is to continue to paint new historic murals. To date, the Society has completed murals at 23 locations and produced a walking guide for 11 of the murals located in the downtown district. I did the 2.2 mile tour in about an hour, including stops for photos, which can be viewed in the gallery below:
Additionally, the organization’s website, www.puntagordamurals.org, tracks the progress of mural replacement and provides a fascinating photographic record of the old and new murals, along with detailed descriptions of the historical significance of each painting. The process of mural creation is slow. In addition to finding appropriate sites, themes must be chosen and researched, artists commissioned, and city approval obtained. And of course, funds must be raised to cover the cost of each mural, which ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, depending upon size and complexity.
While the obstacles to achieving these goals might seem insurmountable, one need only consider that the best estimates were that it would be ten years before the town returned to any degree of normalcy. Yet five short years later, it is virtually impossible to tell that a hurricane ever touched this charming community. If Punta Gorda can achieve this, they will undoubtedly succeed in replacing their murals.