Mark Bennett: Wall repairs cause Coca-Cola mural's noticeable absence, but not forever

May 17—It's nice to be noticed.

And, Hauteans and regular visitors to downtown Terre Haute have indeed noticed the absence of the Coca-Cola mural on the Vigo County History Center's east exterior wall.

Curious folks quiz staff inside the History Center. Motorists and pedestrians holler questions at the crew working to repair the cause of the mural's disappearance. Some speculate on social media. Others wonder in silence.

All want to know, "What happened to the mural?"

The answer isn't sexy or intriguing. It's about mortar. That masonry mixture holding the History Center wall's 42,000-plus bricks in place has deteriorated, allowing water to leak inside and damage the 129-year-old building. To properly remove and replace the "dead mortar," the popular mural first had to be stripped off.

It's not gone forever, though. The History Center — a 501©(3) nonprofit — has a "Brick By Brick" fundraising campaign underway to cover the cost of the repairs and repainting of the mural, which was originally painted in 2018. A restored mural should be completed later this year or early in 2025, Marla Flowers, the History Center executive director, said Thursday.

The job is big and not inexpensive. The total cost nears $350,000. Significant contributions have come through, but there's another $120,000 to go.

"It's costing us," Flowers said, "but we're going to do it right and not just put a Band-Aid on it.

"And it'll be good for the next 20 to 30 years," she added.

For now, only faint patches of the Coca-Cola mural remain on the now-exposed brick wall. Its stripping revealed the remnants of a "ghost sign" from the 1895-era building's original tenant. Its lettering atop the wall reads, "The Ehrmann Mfg. Co. Pants, Overalls, Shirts, Etc." Terre Haute was in the midst of a growth spurt in those days, when the population rose from 30,217 in 1890 to 66,083 by 1920. In that span, Root Glass Company bottle designer Earl R. Dean developed the world's most recognizable container, the contour Coke bottle, at the Root plant on Terre Haute's south side.

The mural celebrated that legacy.

It was painted in May 2018 by Virginian artists Jack Fralin and Bill Johnson. That muralist duo revived and recreated vintage Coca-Cola ghost signs on walls across the country for years, as a nationwide project overseen by Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated. Amid those murals, Terre Haute's could be considered the duo's masterpiece. It was the largest ever for Fralin and Johnson. Their artwork used brilliant colors of red, green, brown, gold and white — matching Coca-Cola's precise requirements — covering 7,000 square feet, three stories tall and 140 feet wide.

Its painting was a spectacle that turned heads downtown for weeks.

"When you're doing these signs, it's a communal affair," Fralin told me in a 2018 interview. "People were driving by and honking horns and saying, 'Way to go.'"

Sadly, it was also the duo's last mural together. Johnson died of a heart attack in Virginia just four days after they finished the Terre Haute mural. He was 63.

"I know he was proud of what we did in Terre Haute," Fralin said of his mural partner in that 2018 interview. "Not just because it was the biggest, but because of what it means to the community."

The fondness became clear this spring when the leaking wall's repairs led to the mural's removal. The inquiries from the public flow daily.

"People are passionate about the mural," Flowers said. "When that was installed in 2018, it became this iconic gateway to the downtown. It's amazing, six years later, people are still intrigued by it."

The voids and cracks behind the multicolored mural's paint became apparent after a fierce storm from the east sent driving rain trickling through the gaps in January 2022. "Literally, water [was] running down the walls," Flowers said.

It was an all-hands-on-deck moment. "We ran for the towels, and started moving things off the walls," said Suzie Quick, the History Center curator.

Since then, the leaking exterior mortar left bubbled paint, cracked plaster and streaked stains on interior walls, from the third-floor events center down to the second-floor exhibit rooms for clothing and textiles, arts and entertainment, and specials, and finally into the high-profile, first-floor Coca-Cola room.

"It's a disaster," Flowers said.

The center enlisted Midwest Restoration of Paris, Illinois, to repair the exterior wall. "We do a lot of historic buildings," Larry Furry of Midwest Restoration said Thursday, while overseeing workers grinding deteriorated mortar from between the bricks.

The process involved water-blasting the surface, which removed the mural, then grinding out the eroded mortar, washing down the surface, repointing and replacing the mortar, and washing it all down again, Furry said. The mortar grinding will take a couple more weeks, followed by a month to six weeks of replacing the mortar.

"It's quite a process," Furry said.

Flowers also said Jeff Bose of Ace Sign & Awning in Terre Haute will be repainting the mural.

Costs for the entire project have increased by 10% or more since the original quotes in March 2022, Flowers said. The repairs include the water-blasting, tuck pointing, repainting the mural and interior repairs. Flowers said donations to cover the expenses include nearly $60,000 through the ongoing "Brick By Brick" campaign; $25,000 from the Root family foundation; $7,500 from Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated; $49,500 from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds distributed through the county commissioners and council; and $100,000 from an anonymous, longtime philanthropic family.

Volunteers have raised hands to help scrape away bubbled paint inside the building, to help defray the repair costs, Quick explained.

Hauteans who've grown attached to the mural can support its restoration by contributing to the "Brick by Brick" campaign. They can purchase a "virtual brick" with a $5 donation online at, by phone at 812-235-9717 or mailing it to the History Center at 929 Wabash Ave., Terre Haute, IN, 47807.

And when it returns, people will notice, no doubt.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or