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Artist pledges to help save Amherst mural

AMHERST — The artist who created the Amherst Community History Mural that may be jeopardized by potential redevelopment of the Amherst Carriage Shops says he’ll work with town officials and the developers to save the large artwork.

“The opportunity we have is to do something here,” David Fichter of Cambridge told the Historical Commission on Tuesday. “We don’t have to tear down this wall.”

The 16-by-140-foot mural, which depicts Amherst’s historical figures and which Fichter described as having a “dialogue” with the adjacent West Cemetery, should remain intact, he said.

“It’s not a mural that can be put anywhere in town,” Fichter said, adding that any reproduction would be a “pale ghost of its former self.”

Archipelago Investments LLC of Amherst is proposing to purchase the 233 North Pleasant St. site for $4.6 million from the condominium trust that owns the property, though no project has yet been proposed. Most of the stores in the Carriage Shops have moved to other downtown sites in anticipation of the property transfer.

Chairman Michael Hanke said because developers have not finalized this deal, the commission has not yet met with the principals, Kyle Wilson and David Williams. But Hanke said this meeting could take place sometime in August, and at that time the commission would welcome more feedback from both Fichter and the public.

Hanke said the commission has no opinions yet on how to handle the possible loss of the mural. “At this point, there’s no point in being militant about it,” Hanke said.

Fichter suggested that even if the site is redeveloped, the facing of the exterior wall could be incorporated into a new building or strengthened so it could stand alone, as has been done in other development projects in the Boston area where exterior walls have historical or other special significance. “I urge you guys to think about this creatively,” Fichter said.

Fichter said he worked more than 18 months on the project’s design, receiving input on the historical figures to include, and painted the mural with assistance from volunteers in the community. The mural was completed and dedicated in 2005.

Until earlier in July, Fichter said he was unaware that his work might be destroyed or altered.

“The idea that the mural could be lost was quite shocking to me,” Fichter said. “This tells stories of what makes Amherst special. I really think it provides a lot for the town.”

When commissioned, he understood that it would help transform a blank, blighted wall that faces the cemetery while also getting residents, including children, to think about the meaning and importance of the cemetery,

Edith MacMullen of 344 Flat Hills Road, a former chairwoman of the Historical Commission, said volunteers assisted Fichter and raised in excess of $40,000 in donations for its completion.

“This mural is the product of the entire town” MacMullen said.

Melissa Perot of 15 Summer St. suggested that the easement granted by the condominium trust to the town might give municipal officials some clout.

“It does give the commission a lot of power in what’s happening,” said Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy, liaison to the commission.

One of the key lines in the easement is that the Carriage Shop trustees “shall not undertake nor permit any activity which will alter or deface the appearance of the mural.”

Malloy said town counsel Kopelman & Paige is reviewing how much authority the town has.

The commission will also have oversight if a demolition permit is requested. Any buildings over 50 years old are subject to the demolition delay bylaw, under which the commission can postpone the razing of a building for a year if the structure is deemed historically significant.

Vincent O’Connor of 175 Summer St. said the town could also do a formal survey of the West Cemetery and determine if the Carriage Shops building, constructed in 1962, extends over a portion of the burial ground. If it does, O’Connor said, this might give town officials more leverage over the mural’s future.

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