Among the bright engines in the Lafayette, Colo. Fire Station leans a carved-out portion of a wooden wall painted a slightly different shade of red. A somewhat faded, though indistinguishably, Coca-Cola red.
The propped-up portion of wall is not much smaller than the fire trucks beside it. Holding its own at 26 feet wide by 14 feet tall, the massive mural weighs more than 4,000 pounds.
But it’s not the sign’s size that makes it so special. It’s the history evident on its surface.
Flakes of paint, frozen mid-peel, speckle the decades-old sign, which once overlooked the heavily trafficked Lincoln Highway, advertising Coca-Cola to thirsty passers-by.
Over the years, the sign faded from public memory, covered by a new exterior and forgotten between layers of wall in a building ultimately slated for demolition. It was during the tear-down process that the city uncovered the sign. Building plans were immediately put on hold.
“The whole community did a collective intake of air,” recalled Sally Martin, chair of Lafayette’s Mural Committee, drawing in an animated gasp. “We got really excited. People started conversing with each other."
“This should be saved,” community members said. “This is part of Lafayette’s history.”
Rather than restore the sign, the town sought to celebrate its history by preserving it as it was found – a tribute to the tests of time the sign has withstood. Volunteers cut the painting out of the building’s wall and transported it to the local fire station for repair.
The focus was not on restoration, but conservation. Rather than make the sign look as it had in its heyday, the community wanted to preserve “the real thing."
“None of the paint was removed. None of it was painted over. This is all original,” Martin marveled at the process. “It was really critical to the values of Lafayette and preserving our history that we did it in this fashion.”
Conservators spent months meticulously vacuuming dirt from the sign’s aged crevices, before safeguarding it from future wear and tear with a protective sealant.
Support from private donors inclucing Swire Coca-Cola has not only helped make the conservation efforts possible, but has validated the community’s drive to preserve.
“We are delighted to tell everybody that we have contacted Coca-Cola and that they are a contributor,” Martin said. "After all, Coca-Cola is part of the framework of our history. I think everyone has a Coca-Cola background.”
The mural’s future life, Martin believes, will serve as a critical reminder to the community of where it has been, and where it's headed. “People don’t necessarily remember what it was like even 10 years ago, let alone the beginning of the 20th century, so it’s really important to hold on to aspects of our community that demonstrate what life was like.”
The mural will soon reside on a historic building one block from its original home. There, Lafayette residents new and old will be able to look at the sign and share a common wonder and nostalgia over the stories it relays.
“Yes, it’s a Coke mural," she conclude. "Yes, it’s Americana art. But if it could talk… the stories it could tell!”
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