The “Starry Night” mural that swallowed up the outer wall of their two-story house in a star-studded deep blue sky was supposed to be a gift to their son, now 25, who had a particular fascination with Vincent van Gogh.
Nancy Nemhauser and her husband, Lubomir Jastrzebski, decided in 2017 to hire an artist to paint the mural after finding their son, who is autistic, constantly captivated by the painting. He had found it in a coffee-table book at their home in Mount Dora, Fla., Nemhauser said.
At first, they only wanted to paint the five-foot wall that enclosed their front yard, but Nemhauser said they opted to paint their entire house after a code-enforcement officer said the wall needed to match the house.
They knew their son would be even more thrilled.
“We decided, well, there must be something to it,” Nemhauser told The Washington Post of their son’s love of “The Starry Night.” “Sure enough, when he was feeling tense, we would bring out the book, turn to the page where ‘Starry Night’ was, and it seemed to relax him. That’s how this started.”
The mural soon attracted attention. People rang their doorbell asking to take pictures. Trolleys and Segway riders detoured down their street, slowing down to get a look.
But not everybody liked the painting.
In the eyes of a code-enforcement officer, the mural looked like a “juvenile-type painting of some sort,” as the officer told a magistrate, according to court documents. “I’m not into that type of artwork,” the code-enforcement officer allegedly said, arguing that the giant mural violated the city’s “sign” ordinance.
A magistrate agreed, saying their house “attracts the attention of the public,” and ordered them to repaint it.
For Nemhauser and Jastrzebski, what started as an art project intended to bring joy to their son instead brought them more than $10,000 in fines and fees for city-ordinance violations. It stretched into a year-long debate over the legality of cloaking one’s home in a famous painting. The couple refused to repaint their house, believing it would terribly upset their son, and instead took the case to federal court. They argued that the city’s sign ordinance was so overbroad in content restrictions that it violated their freedom of speech and that they were being selectively targeted in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Agreeing they were likely to prevail, a judge granted a temporary restraining order this year blocking the city from imposing any more of its $100-per-day fines.
On Tuesday, however, Mayor Nick Girone announced that the city had reached an agreement with Nemhauser and Jastrzebski after reconsidering its position. The city of Mount Dora was required to publicly apologize — at a news conference — for the troubles it caused the couple and their son.
The city will pay the couple $15,000 and remove the lien on their home from the accrued fees, Nemhauser said. She said a portion of the money will go toward paying their attorneys. The city will also review various local ordinances and solicit input from a seven-member panel on which Nemhauser was invited serve, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
“I would like to extend my sincere apology to Nancy and [Lubomir] for how this matter has turned into an unfortunate dispute,” Girone said.
Requiring the mayor to publicly apologize as part of the settlement was all Jastrzebski’s idea, Nemhauser said. He grew up in Communist Poland behind the Iron Curtain, without freedom of speech or expression, she said. He immigrated to the United States in 1974 to work as a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to the lawsuit.
“My husband said, ‘They must apologize!’ ” Nemhauser recounted. “He was very assertive about that, because he felt that his rights had been violated. These were his First Amendment rights, and it took him 10 years to become a citizen. He grew up without those rights, so he was not going to be without them here.
“He was willing to lose the house.”
Nemhauser said they did not tell their son about any of the legal wrangling over his favorite mural.
Frequently, she said, she catches him standing out on the balcony or out on the driveway, staring up at the stars.