WEST VILLAGE — The artist who painted murals for Commerce Restaurant removed his works from the shuttered eatery Tuesday morning, signalling to some residents the final nail in the beloved restaurant's coffin.
David Joel's paintings were made to adorn the walls of 50 Commerce St., and became such a part of the restaurant's identity that pieces of the works were printed on its coasters and matchbooks and sold as postcards.
But after Commerce closed abruptly earlier this summer, nobody mentioned the murals. The circumstances of the restaurant's closure were hazy.
"All I knew was no one could get in," Joel said. "No one could tell me how my paintings were."
A protracted legal battle between the restaurant and its landlords, Judith and Richard Kingman, ended earlier this year when the restaurateurs lost their last appeal of a 2013 civil court decision. The ruling found them in breach of their lease for not removing a wall they built in the cellar and for storing restaurant equipment in the building’s common space, blocking access to electrical and elevator equipment.
Joel said he wasn't aware of the litigation, and still doesn't "know specifically all of the things that are happening with the restaurant or why."
In fact, he would have liked to leave the murals in the space, given their connection to their location.
The paintings grew out of local folklore about a sea captain with two daughters who didn't get along, Joel explained. The sea captain constructed two townhouses across the street from 50 Commerce St., including a common area between them, "with the idea that hopefully the daughters would find a common ground, a place to meet between the two buildings," he added.
Joel's personal connection as an artist with the space dates back 20 years, when he first made murals for a previous neighborhood restaurant there called Grange Hall.
Despite being the site of Liv Tyler's Sweet 16 party and a place where celebrities waited 30 minutes to be seated for brunch, Grange Hall was still considered a neighborhood joint. When it closed in 2004, its owners told the New York Observer they decided not to renew their lease because of “increased operating costs."
Grange Hall was replaced by Blue Hill Tavern, which also closed after a short time.
That's when Commerce Restaurant owner Tony Zazula entered the picture.
Zazula's research into the space's history led him to Joel's original Grange Hall mural, Joel said. But when Zazula tracked it down, he found its owner, one of Grange Hall's partners, was not interested in parting with it.
"She didn’t want to give it to him, or sell it to him," Joel said, but she told Zazula how to contact the artist. Joel was reluctant to take the commission at first, but when Zazula explained that he wanted Joel to create something connected to the history of the neighborhood, the artist was sold.
It was Joel's idea to play with the myth of the sisters, inspired by "the historical view of them right across the street."
The main mural in the dining room was Joel's vision of the common ground, with different iterations of the daughters at different ages, flanked by murals of one sister on either side, looking toward the common ground.
A few years later, Zazula approached him for a new mural over the bar area, still featuring the sisters, but "more sexual" because of its placement.
Joel views Zazula as a fellow artist, and spoke admiringly of his stewardship of the restaurant's historic space.
"It's really sad, because it was such a fantastic place, so beautiful," Joel said. "He did such a magnificent job."
Joel said he had given his onetime patron a heads-up about his plan to remove the murals and Zazula didn't fight him on it.
The murals were carried out Tuesday morning by "a very professional team" of four men plus Joel. The paintings will be stored in Sag Harbor, where the artist lives.
Zazula did not immediately respond to an attempt to reach him, and the Kingmans did not respond to a message left at their office.
They still live at 50 Commerce St. and have promised neighbors that the space will remain a restaurant, though no one has heard of any prospective new tenants.
"If anyone wanted [the murals] back, if something were to change," Joel said, "I'd love them to be there."