What's the Real Story Behind Eleven44's 65-Year-Old Mural?
A 65-year-old artwork symbolizing the eternal struggle in life has overcome its own battles, from an early identity crisis to sledgehammer attacks.
Did you know? While in Hawaii to perform at the Zebra Room, legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck almost died in a swimming accident, in which he sustained nerve damage.
photos: Odeelo dayondon
It's the first thing you notice when you walk into eleven44: With slight illumination from a few bulbs surrounded by mesh balls and a thin panel of dim lights directly above it, the mural along the makai wall springs to life. The bas-relief of warriors locked in battle—resembling wood but sculpted in plaster by the late Andy Huhn in the 1940s—still captivates decades after the artist muttered, “I bet nobody will even notice it.”
HONOLULU Magazine’s predecessor, Paradise of the Pacific, ran a first-person account by Cornelius Mulder in 1949 of how the mural came to be: Huhn approached Mulder with an idea for the entrance of his new jazz club, the Zebra Room. “Instead of the usual cut-and-dried front decoration, why not a sculpture of zebras in bas-relief?” Huhn, an American-born Latvian artist with piercing blue eyes, asked. Mulder, though apprehensive, agreed to the piece. Once it was completed, he was enthralled: “It became more and more evident that the original decoration of the room itself looked insipid in comparison with the liveliness of the new sculpted work at the entrance,” he wrote. Huhn submitted more sketches, and Mulder, despite already having a costly decoration for the main wall, couldn’t stop thinking about the magnificent plants, animals and figures Huhn proposed for a larger mural. So Huhn set to work.
Huhn poured three-foot-wide panels of plaster, five inches thick, so the mural could be taken apart and transported to the Zebra Room without damage. He laid out almost 40 feet of a design to transfer onto the panels, but, when enlarged, the figures didn’t look right. Mulder, agreeing, picked up a garbage can lid to demonstrate how a warrior with a shield should look.
“Hold it!” Huhn shouted, and proceeded to draw Mulder’s stance on the plaster. Mulder became the model for every male figure in the mural, along with a local woman for the female figures.
Almost a year later, the mural was completed, and Huhn, after spending so much time and creativity on the project, was exhausted. He didn’t think people would care. But the most meaningful praise for him came from a newspaper boy, who, as he saw Huhn put the finishing touches on the mural, whispered, “Boy ... ain’t that sumpting.”
Eleven44 1144 Bethel St. Honolulu, HI 96813
David Stewart, one of the restaurateurs who revitalized Chinatown, first came across the mural about 20 years ago. An architect friend, knowing Stewart’s affinity for art, urgently called him to a demolition site on Kalakaua Avenue at Young Street, where the Zebra Room thrived in the ’50s. The bar was a mess, covered in dirt. A worker asked Stewart for $500 for the mural, but Stewart said no. “I was only going to take it because I was saving art,” Stewart says. The worker smashed one of the panels with a sledgehammer. When there was only about an hour left before the place had to be cleared out, the worker, desperate to get rid of the mural, handed it over for about $200. Stewart eased the panels off the wall (which made the man angry, because he thought they were connected and would be difficult to remove), took them home and stored them in front of his wife’s car. (“That really pissed her off,” he says.)
It was another five years before he finally found a place for Huhn’s mural: Indigo. It hung in the Green Room and the Opium Den until Stewart sold his shares of the restaurant. Now shorter, with some of the filler panels—mostly leaves—taken out, the mural hangs in eleven44 (formerly bambuTwo). Why does Stewart take the mural with him wherever he goes? Same reason he rescued it in the first place: “I loved it.”