As It Happens

Family wins fight to keep Van Gogh Starry Night house for their autistic son

A Florida couple has won a nearly year-long legal battle for their right to cover their house and wall with a mural of Vincent van Gogh's famed The Starry Night.

'We see him looking up at the stars, if you will, even in the daytime,' says Nancy Nemhauser

The Mount Dora City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday that Lubomir Jastrzebski, left, and Nancy Nemhauser, right, can keep the blue-and-yellow paint swirled on their walls in the style of Van Gogh's masterpiece as a beacon for their son, centre, who has autism. (Collin Callahan/Pacific Legal Foundation)
Listen6:03

Read Story Transcript

Nancy Nemhauser says she and her husband tried to play by the rules when they hired an artist to paint a huge mural of Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night on their home for their autistic son. 

The Mount Dora, Florida couple has won a nearly year-long legal battle for their right to keep the mural up, after being told it was a violation of city code.

Nemhauser said they commissioned the painting from artist Richard Barrenechea as a beacon for their adult son, who has difficulty communicating and sometimes wanders away from home. 

"He calls this The Starry Night house," Nemhauser told As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch. 

"That was the reason that we wanted to use that as a landmark — not only that he could say that, but if he were to say that, then other people would know what house he's talking about and know to contact us."

The family's son refers to their colourful home as 'The Starry Night house.' (John Raoux/Associated Press)

She said they started by painting a mural on the masonry wall in front of their home, but the city told them it was considered graffiti if the wall didn't match the house. So they painted the house, too.

That's when the got slapped with a $10,000 US fine.

Mount Dora had said the illustration, which has made the house into a minor tourist attraction, was improper and risked distracting drivers, according to city documents.

With the help of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the couple sued the city for violating their constitutional right to free expression — and won.

We've learned that if he's able to look at The Starry Night picture, it seems to be calming for him.- Nancy Nemhauser

The city council of Mount Dora on Tuesday finalized a settlement with Nemhauser and husband Lubomir Jastrzebski.

As part of the ruling they will receive $15,000 US from the city, which will also 'grandfather' their home, granting it exemption from further ordinances.

"Obviously we're very pleased with the settlement. It accomplished everything we set out to do," said Jeremy Talcott of Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented them pro-bono.

The dispute began when the couple painted an exterior wall. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

The city has also apologized to the family — which is welcome news for Jastrzebski, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Poland.

"He's a very proud American and wants to be able to enjoy his constitutional rights. He felt that what the city did was wrong and that they should apologize," Nemhauser said.

"To him, the apology was probably worth more than anything."

Nancy Nemhauser, right, is pictured with her son who loves Vincent Van Gogh and finds his big blue home to be very calming. (Collin Callahan/Pacific Legal Foundation )

Now the family hopes to put the legal nightmare behind them and go on enjoying their colourful home with their son, who is a huge Van Gogh fan.

"At times if he's upset and unable to express himself, we've learned that if he's able to look at The Starry Night picture, it seems to be calming for him," she said.

"It is so relaxing for him to go out onto the balcony. We see him looking up at the stars, if you will, even in the daytime."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Nancy Nemhauser produced by Sarah Cooper. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.