Family wins fight to keep Van Gogh Starry Night house for their autistic son
'We see him looking up at the stars, if you will, even in the daytime,' says Nancy Nemhauser
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."
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 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."
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.