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A 'ghost sign' resurrected : Coca-Cola mural revival underway on Downtown Mall

The artist has landed. Well, actually Asheville, North Carolina-based muralist Scott Allred has lofted himself up in a construction lift as he begins to revive a classic Coca-Cola advertisement on a brick building along Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

“This is a really intense wall,” Allred told The Daily Progress. “It’s hard to get my head around it.”

The complication stems, he said, from a multiplicity of signs painted on the side of 122 E. Main St., a roughly 130-year-old structure. There are touts for Sloan’s Liniment and Owl Cigars as well as for the local drugstore that sold those products — plus at least four different Coke signs. So deciding which ones to freshen may pose a challenge.

“If you try to give the same attention to everything, it gets visually confusing,” said Allred.

A local historian found a 1930 photograph showing in the background the mix of murals on the circa-1890 building. In the foreground, a crowd of men in suits and hats are gathered on Main Street, now the Downtown Mall, to hear baseball scores being read by a man perched in an open second-story window.

“This might be the oldest wall I’ve worked on,” said Allred. “People were coming downtown in horse and buggy when the first advertising went on it.”

One advertiser has shown such interest that it agreed to foot the $32,000 fee for Allred’s firm, Brushcan Murals and Sign. That’s America’s biggest Coca-Cola bottler, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Coca-Cola Consolidated.

The artist said that local business murals interest him just as much as the touts for the caramel-colored, carbonated beverage. He also admits to a fascination with the concept of the traveling sign painter of the early 20th century.

“The grocery store owner got a free sign up there by allowing him to paint Coca-Cola, which is a neat exchange,” said Allred. “It also ties it in to local history.”

In his first few days in Charlottesville, Allred had to deal primarily with his crispy canvas, the brick wall on Second Street Southwest facing the long-dormant Dewberry hotel project. Running a finger through a mortar joint, he watched it crumble into a tuft of sand that scattered into the afternoon breeze.

“It’s nothing but powder,” Allred said. “This wall is in horrible shape.”

Here, at the edge of the Downtown Mall, which was named in June to the state’s historic register, Allred said his first task is applying a sealant over key parts of surviving murals.

“I’ll loosely seal those letters to retain what’s original so it doesn’t disappear anymore, and then apply paint,” he said.

As Allred was working on the project recently, the man who initiated the work itself, Michael Caplin, who co-chairs Friends of Cville Downtown, walked up.

“It’s wild,” Caplin told The Daily Progress. “It’s like a treasure hunt.”

Caplin said he yearns for a better treasure map, a clearer photograph of the murals in their heyday. Still, what’s visible is enough to stoke the memory of Lexington, North Carolina, visitor Vinny Mirizio.

The classic 6.5-ounce Coca-Cola bottle carried a price tag of five cents from 1886 to 1959, and Mirizio said that price reminded him of his childhood in Brooklyn.

“That’s my era,” Mirizio told The Daily Progress. “I was born in 1943 with the five-cent Cokes.”

Originally, the revival of the Coke sign was going to feature deeply saturated colors, but that iteration failed to find instant favor with the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review. In June, however, a month after the initial presentation, Caplin brought new renderings that toned down the bright red and green of the original Coke art and also lavished some attention on other signs. The board unanimously greenlighted the project.

Standing on his motorized lift earlier this week, Allred promised that when he leaves Charlottesville sometime next week, he’ll leave behind a wall of vintage advertising preserved for future generations.

“When I’m all done,” he said, “it’ll look old and weathered.”


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