Portland’s Whaling Wall, a 950-foot-long mural along one side of a city-owned building on the Maine State Pier, has been an imposing artistic landmark on the waterfront for nearly 21 years.
Now, a new commercial tenant in the building plans to cut through the wall to add a loading dock and entrance, while a spokesman for the painter says he would like to see the artwork preserved, repainted or even moved.
Richmond-based Shucks Maine Lobster is moving forward with plans to convert more than 18,000 square feet at Portland’s Ocean Terminal into a lobster processing plant. To do that, it will have to cut through the mural’s metal wall to create a loading dock and product entrance, and a door for employees. It also will have to install a nitrogen tank, for freezing lobster, next to the wall.
John Hathaway, president and owner of Shucks Maine Lobster, said he hopes to save as much of the Whaling Wall as possible. “I don’t have any interest in removing the mural,” he said. “It’s part of the waterfront’s history.”
On June 7, 1993, hundreds of people gathered on the Maine State Pier to watch as Robert Wyland – an artist known only as Wyland – and a crew of volunteers spray-painted the wall. It was Wyland’s first stop on a highly publicized East Coast tour on which he painted 17 marine-themed murals in 17 cities in 17 weeks.
In 2008, Wyland announced that he had completed 100 public marine murals in 13 countries and 79 cities around the world.
Portland’s mural depicts an 82-foot-long finback whale, two bottle-nosed dolphins, two minke whales and several white-sided Atlantic dolphins. Titled “Whales off the coast of Maine,” it could have been included in Portland’s collection of public art, but the city chose not to, said Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator.
Hathaway said he will have to make some structural changes to accommodate his business, which will employ about 70 workers once it is fully operational. “The only way to get in and out of that space is through that wall,” he said.
City officials and the public will have their first chance to take a closer look at the project on April 22, when Shucks Maine Lobster is scheduled to go before the Planning Board with its preliminary plan. No final decisions will be made that night.
Needelman said he’s not sure what, if any, restrictions the Planning Board can impose on Shucks’ use of the wall, but he noted that the mural isn’t protected as part of the public art collection.
“It’s not news to anybody that there will be changes made to the Maine State Pier building,” said Needelman. “There will be some impact to the wall.”
The brightly colored mural has faded over the years, but the giant images of swimming whales and dolphins have captured many visitors’ imaginations. The wall, referred to as both the Whaling Wall and the Whale Wall, faces the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal, which thousands of visitors pass through each summer.
“I still remember the day that Wyland painted it,” said City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who also is the operations manager for Casco Bay Lines. “I look at it every day from my office.”
Mavodones served on the City Council subcommittee that recommended the council enter into a 15-year lease with Shucks. Mavodones said he doubts that a piece of artwork will impede the plan for a processing plant, something he described as an ideal use of the working waterfront that will create jobs.
But a spokesman for Wyland was not pleased to hear that the mural may be altered.
“It’s not an ideal scenario for us,” said Steve Creech, executive director of the nonprofit Wyland Foundation. Wyland could not be reached this week because he is traveling in Asia.
Creech said he hopes that the city or Hathaway will contact the foundation to discuss alternatives such as having the mural relocated or repainted.
“There is no reason the Portland mural could not be repurposed or re-created somewhere else,” he said.
Creech said there isn’t much that Wyland can do to preserve his work because the city owns the building and, therefore, the mural.
“When we talk about taking down one of these murals, we are talking about the end of an era,” Creech said.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]