A piece of Downtown’s art history that debuted to the public in August 1959 is being revived and soon will have a new home at the Main Library.
A painting by local artist Lee Adams was the centerpiece of the fine-dining restaurant, “The Jean Ribault Room,” on the second floor of the old Sears, Roebuck & Co. department store. The 30-foot-wide mural depicts the May 1, 1562, arrival of French explorer Jean Ribault to North Florida.
Ribault and his crew were greeted with gifts of food by the Timucua tribe of Native Americans who inhabited Northeast Florida at the time.
The store closed in 1981 when Sears moved to Regency Square. The building was demolished to make way for the Enterprise Center and Omni Hotel, but before the wrecking ball went to work the mural was saved.
The store’s manager offered it to the City, which declined the donation, but the Duval County Public Schools accepted and gained possession of the historic artifact.
The mural pretty much disappeared until it was discovered in a box behind a sofa at Lee High School in November 1986 after a fire severely damaged the building.
Over the next 12 years, several proposals were made to the City to take possession of the painting and restore it for display in a public building. None came to fruition until 1998, when City Council approved a $10,000 appropriation to restore the painting.
That’s when the size of the art became an issue, said Lynn Corley, who in 2001 heard the story of the French Huguenots who came with Ribault to the New World in search of religious freedom. They landed near what is now Mayport and later established a colony at Fort Caroline.
About the same time, Corley discovered the Jacksonville Historical Society and has been on a mission for the past 11 years to preserve the mural as a record of the Huguenots’ story.
She said no progress was made to exhibit the canvas until LaVilla School of the Arts opened in 2000. Its first principal, Jane Condon, realized the significance of Adam’s mural, Corley said. A space for the mural was designated in the school’s cafeteria.
It remained there until 11 days ago when painter Jim Draper removed it and took it to the Main Library, where he is cleaning and restoring it.
The refurbished mural will debut at a 5 p.m. May 1 ceremony on the library’s 4th floor. Adams’ 53-year-old painting will become a permanent display in the library’s Florida Collection.
“It has been a fun journey. I am so glad the City is embracing the mural,” said Corley.
Draper said it isn’t the first time he has worked on preserving the mural. Before it was installed in the cafeteria, the mural was bonded to a new piece of canvas and encased in a polymer material for protection. Several missing sections were patched and then repainted, based on photographs of the original image.
“It takes us back to the 1950s and a whole different attitude. You wouldn’t get this painting if you got someone to paint this historical event today,” said Draper.
The subject matter notwithstanding, Draper said the mural is an early example of corporate art. When Sears commissioned the painting, it was intended to be distinctive and viewed by people who dined in the restaurant.
“It needs to be seen and enjoyed. It’s an archive of a restaurant and a time,” he said.