ST. PETERSBURG — After a trying day at the Bay Pines VA, John Kearns gets off the bus near his home in downtown St. Petersburg and crosses to Central Avenue.
He walks to the west wall of the Gas Plant Antique Arcade, at 1246 Central Ave., and prays over the portrait of his late beloved companion, a Jack Russell terrier named Shorty.
Shorty was a godsend after Kearns, who was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne in the Gulf War, lost his wife and daughter to a drunken driver almost 20 years ago. A year after their deaths, Kearns found Shorty injured and hiding under his North Carolina home on his 33rd birthday. Until his peaceful death around age 10, Shorty accompanied Kearns everywhere, even to work remodeling floors.
Kearns visits the wall as often as four times a day.
"Usually when I just need something to lift me up sometimes I just go there and look at the picture of him," Kearns, 49, said. "When I found that dog, it was just a blessing. That dog came into my life and saved my life because I couldn't take it no more."
On a faded flamingo-pink wall, Shorty is memorialized with 200 other dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and horses blocked with colorful bold backgrounds across a 70-foot stretch of space on the building. It's named the St. Pete Pet Project.
Murals for Mutts, an organization that paints portraits of customers' pets for donations to Pet Pal Animal Shelter, began painting on the wall in late 2010, when the then-owners of the antique arcade donated the space. The organization has nine other walls around the Tampa Bay area. With portraits costing about $100 each, about $10,000 has been raised.
But as of last month, the antique arcade is under new ownership.
Jackie Williams and her husband, Todd Wilson, who leased the third floor of the building for their antique business, Furnish Me Vintage, for three years, bought the building for $1.2 million, according to county records.
The 88-year-old building is long overdue for renovations, Williams said. She said tropical storms last year caused water damage that opened cracks in the masonry and stucco and ruined furniture inside the building. The couple plans to resurface and repaint the building, jeopardizing the mural.
"We understand these are people's pets; they're members of people's family," Williams said. "But we have to do what we have to do to preserve our investment in the building."
Williams and her husband took the mural's significance to heart. Within a week of the sale, she called Anna Hamilton Fields, the artist for Murals for Mutts, and asked her to stop taking orders for the wall. Williams plans to have a farewell gathering for owners so they can take pictures before the renovations.
Williams doesn't plan to donate the space again. With limited signs, they don't want to confuse passers-by.
"There's 70 feet of pets and nothing representing furniture, and people come in asking for pet food," she said.
Fields realized in the past few months that the building was deteriorating. She kept noticing mold and water leaking from on high, and has often had to touch up the mural with clear coats of paint.
"It was actually starting to take the paint off, so that was part of the problem there," Fields said. "I was trying to keep up, but it was a losing battle for me anyhow."
Fields said she understands the new owners' motives but feels sorry for the pet owners. When she comes to paint a new image of a pet, she often finds flowers taped to the wall.
"Being that it's street art, nothing's guaranteed," she said. "They're on buildings. A car can hit them, they can burn down, someone can buy them. We know they're not going to be permanent."
Murals for Mutts is actively looking for another location for a mural, said Dawn Catacchio, co-owner of Murals for Mutts.
Because they took a photo of every portrait the day it was completed, Fields and Catacchio may hand out photo prints of each pet to customers.
For Kearns, photos and small plastic treasures his dog dug up in the back yard are all he has left to remember Shorty.
Colleen Wright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.