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California and the West

Art Admirers Hope Murals Can Be Saved

Preservation: Plan to raze a former Sears threatens fragile artworks, but moving them would be costly and difficult.


ESCONDIDO — Art and commerce, always uneasy partners, are headed for a collision on East Valley Parkway in this middle-class suburb north of San Diego.

For three decades, a series of 20-by-30-foot murals celebrating the region's early history of Spanish explorers, Catholic missionaries and Mexican adventurers has graced the outside walls of a giant store along one of the city's longest and busiest commercial strips.

The multicolored ceramic tile murals are the work of Manhattan Beach artist Frank Matranga, who was commissioned by Sears to do seven bas-relief pieces for its new store in 1970.

In 1986, Sears moved to the big new mall on the edge of town and Fedco took over the property. Three of the murals were destroyed to make way for a gardening center, but four remained.

Fedco closed a year ago, and now Home Depot wants to raze the 160,000-square-foot building and start anew.

Although he has done 50 large murals for other public and private buildings throughout Southern California, including six for Los Angeles County libraries and one for a bagel shop in La Verne, the possible destruction of his Escondido murals has brought more than bit of anguish to the artist.

"This is my masterpiece," said Matranga, 67, who maintains a studio just blocks from the beach in Manhattan Beach. "When the three were destroyed [in 1986] I didn't know about until it was over, but this time I know. The idea of losing them all is terrible."

That public art should be imperiled in this tree-lined community of 128,000 people runs counter to the city's preferred civic image.

More than any other suburban city in San Diego County, Escondido has sought to use public art--artistic displays and eye-catching architecture--to revive a flagging downtown and boost its local economy.

"We've invested a tremendous amount of dollars, tears and effort into making Escondido the art capital of North County," said Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler. "It would be against our Escondido culture to let this art be demolished."

In the last decade, Escondido has built a City Hall and the California Center for the Arts, a complex including a 1,538-seat concert hall, a 408-seat theater, museum spaces and a conference hall.

The Escondido Municipal Gallery, just south of the center, offers space to local artists and display space for traveling shows. The Escondido Arts Partnership offers thrice-monthly meetings for local poets, short story writers, essayists and dramatists to receive succor and constructive critiques of their works.

The Patio Playhouse Community Theatre has a new venue for plays that are not booked at the arts center. Sturdy pieces of art are sprinkled throughout downtown. Noted La Jolla artist Niki de Saint Phalle is working on a sculpture garden display for Kit Carson Park, Escondido's largest park.

Although city leaders probably would never phrase it quite so baldly, the goal of the "art is good" movement could be said to be aimed at keeping Escondido from becoming just a bedroom community with a regional shopping center (North County Faire) on the south and the Lawrence Welk Resort Center on the north.

Everybody, it seems, wants to save the murals. The Alamo Group, the land development company that owns the property, wants to save them. Home Depot wants to save them. City officials want to save them.

"I'm not really in love with them, but they are attractive," said Don Anderson, who as the city's director of community services oversees art projects. "We'd like to salvage them, but who knows?"

The most promising rescue plan has come from local architect Robert James, who would like to put the murals in a project he is designing for downtown Escondido in a former tire store. But questions remain about money and whether the clay in the murals will crumble if they are moved.

Saving the murals would be expensive, and Matranga says he cannot afford to pay to have them relocated. Neither Alamo nor Home Depot has stepped forward. A city consultant concluded that the murals are so brittle after decades of wind, rain and sun that they might fall apart if someone tried to pry them loose.

Then there is the problem of location. Saving four huge panels is a lot more difficult than hanging another painting on the wall.

The murals took 12 months of labor and $70,000 worth of materials to build, leaving Matranga with a $20,000 commission.

"I think it would not say too much for Escondido if we can't save the murals," said Lucy Burke, chairwoman of the city Historic Preservation Commission. "If they can save the great temples from being flooded by the Aswan Dam [in Egypt], what's a couple of murals? It just takes initiative and imagination."

Although James' proposal is encouraging, Matranga is getting worried. Home Depot would like to start construction as soon as possible.

"I hope they're not just delaying things by feeding people platitudes," Matranga said, "so that later they can come in with bulldozers and say, 'Oops, sorry, we tried.' "

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