By Dave Zuchowski

When downtown Brownsville lost an old building due to demolition, it allowed the spotlight to shine on a long-neglected piece of the town’s history.

About five years ago, when Kart’s department store was torn down, Brownsville mayor, Ross Swords, could clearly see the large Coca-Cola ad painted on an adjacent building. A borough council member at the time, he thought it might be a good idea to restore the mural, located at 25 Market St., and contacted Coke headquarters in Atlanta to set things in motion.

With things making little headway, this year, he wrote the Coca-Cola CEO, who referred him to ABARTA Coca-Cola Beverages, a distributor based in Houston, Pa. This time his efforts paid dividends as ARBATA financed the complete restoration of the mural.

“I’m not sure of the total cost, but believe it runs somewhere in the thousands of dollars,” Swords said.

Thanks to an old 1919 photograph the mayor found, he could date the Coke ad to at least 1919 as it was visible in the photo. Another photo dated 1926 showed the ad covered by a later one for the Brownsville Trust Company. Later, a 1960 photo that captured the installation of an air conditioner atop the G. C. Murphy Company showed the nearby Coke ad once again reemerging from beneath the Trust Company ad.

It remained largely forgotten until the Kart’s building demolition in Sept. 2016 shed new light on the old Brownsville landmark.

ARBATA hired Penn Hills muralist, Randi Stewart, to restore the ad, and work began on Sept. 13. Stewart started by priming the sign’s background with a sprayer from a lift that held her 40-feet from the ground, carefully making sure she didn’t cover over the ad’s original letters. After painting the sign’s red background, she painted the green borders on the top and bottom, adding the words delicious and refreshing that weren’t on the original.

“Coca-Cola wanted these words because they were often included in their signage of that era,” Stewart said. “The original banner promoted the drugstore which occupied the building at that time. I also honored the way Coke originally represented the cent sign on the ad.”

Stewart had worked on a lift before, despite the fact that she’s light-headed. Forty feet up, she also wore a safety harness. Despite the inherent challenges, she said she found the project exciting.

With some one-day help from a partner she hired when she fell behind because of a “bit of weather,” Stewart finished the restoration on Sept. 17. Overall, she estimated she put in between 55 and 60 hours on the project.

“The mayor was a delight to work with and was very helpful,” she said. “The fire department was also co-operative because they set up some floodlights, which let me work later into the evening.”

To help celebrate the restoration and to raise money for a plan to light the sign from dusk to dawn, Brownsville is holding an event at Snowden Square Downtown tentatively set for Nov. 21. During the event, attendees can buy hot dogs from a local vendor and 8 oz. bottles of Coca-Cola for 5 cents, the price advertised in the mural. Coke will also give away related items such as bottle openers.

As to the muralist, Stewart has a bachelor of arts degree in graphic design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. After graduating, she later decided that working with her hands was more exciting and gave her more satisfaction and got a job with Giant Eagle doing hand-painted signage. Eventually promoted to the visual merchandiser position, she now builds what she calls “compelling displays of food products.”

This year, she completed a large street mural in the Friendship neighborhood of Pittsburgh with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies. She also painted an interior mural in one of the Carnegie Robotics buildings.

Originally from the Grindstone area, she is very familiar with Brownsville and recently worked with the Fayette County Cultural Trust to complete a three-story mural on the side of a Connellsville church.

“I’m glad we were able to partner with Coca-Cola and restore the hand-painted sign back to its original look for the community of Brownsville and everyone else who visits to enjoy,” Swords said.

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