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Historic Victor's Cafe Mural is Saved

Sculptor Arturo Martin Garcia with the mural he created outside Victor's Cafe in the 1970s.
Sculptor Arturo Martin Garcia with the mural he created outside Victor's Cafe in the 1970s.
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Del Corral Family

UPPER WEST SIDE — Instead of tearing down a beloved 40-year-old mural depicting a Cuban field worker and two oxen, a café owner reversed course and announced plans to light it up at night for the neighborhood to enjoy.

In a surprise move, the owner of the soon-to-open Cafe Tallulah wine bar said Monday he won't destroy the rustic mural outside 240 Columbus Ave. Though Greg Hunt had deemed the bas-relief artwork an "an eyesore," he now plans to "subtly illuminate it at night so people can see it," according to an announcement on his wine bar's Facebook page.

The reversal, first reported on West Side Rag, had preservationists cheering. It came just a day before the Landmarks Preservation Commission was scheduled to vote on his bid to remove the mural.

Hunt, who is expected to open Cafe Tallulah this fall, wanted to replace the country scene with a shiny new facade greeting diners at his wine bar. His vision of an upscale venue  — where adults can kick back and listen to jazz while sipping cocktails — clashed with the rural-themed mural showing a Cuban sugarcane field, he had said.

But Upper West Side preservationists argued that the mural should be saved because it was a symbol of the neighborhood's Latino past. The pastoral scene was commissioned in 1971 by Victor Del Corral, the owner of Victor's Cafe, which was then the city's top Cuban restaurant.

At a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing last month, groups such as Landmark West! lined up to plead for the mural. Their call to arms sparked a mini movement to save the artwork. After DNAinfo first reported the mural controversy, the New York Times and Spanish-language media covered the issue, and some residents and organizations like Cuban Cultural Center of New York submitted letters asking the LPC to vote against the mural's destruction.

Hunt, who told the Landmarks Commission in February that the mural was an "eyesore," said his feelings about the artwork had changed over the past several weeks.

"We actually started to like the mural," Hunt said. "I just thought, it’s quirky, it’s unique, it’s different, and I think it might make a for a fun exterior, even though it has nothing to do with an upscale French café."

Hunt said the mural will be restored to its original glory.

Not everyone wanted the mural to stay; Community Board 7 voted unanimously in favor of Hunt's plan to get rid of the artwork at its March 6 meeting.

News of that the mural was saved from the wrecking ball was a pleasant surprise for Del Corral's granddaughter Monica Zaldivar, who now helps run the Midtown location of Victor's Cafe with her mother.

"I'm shocked and really happy," said Zaldivar, 32. "To me [the mural] is symbolic of where my grandfather came from and what he did with his life. It's amazing to me what a visionary he was."

Del Corral paid Cuban artist Arturo Martin Garcia $30,000 to create the work, which was meant to represent Del Corral's humble beginnings as a "campesino," or peasant, Zaldivar said. Garcia lived across the street from the restaurant at West 71st Street and Columbus Avenue and had studied sculpture at Cuba's prestigious Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes.

Some have speculated that the shirtless man in the mural was a nod to gay clientele at Victor's Cafe, but Zaldivar said there was no overt gay connection, though Garcia was gay and his lover posed for the scene, she said.

Zaldivar, who still lives a block from the former Victor's Cafe and passes the mural every day on her way to the gym, said seeing the mural today makes her smile with pride.

Del Corral more than achieved his dream of opening a restaurant in New York, she said. He opened Victor's Cafe in 1963 when the Upper West Side had few restaurants and built it into a hotspot that attracted a slew of celebrities including Sammy Davis, Jr., John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Celia Cruz and Jacqueline Kennedy, Zaldivar said.

"There were a lot of artists and celebrities and it was a fun time to live in that era," Zaldivar said. "It was beautiful and moving to see how much people remembered that."