Columbus, Ohio USA
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Arch City Tavern Pays Tribute to Columbus
Vasiliev Nini captures city scenes in magnificent mural
By Ann Starr
November/December 2012 Issue

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Vasiliev Nini finishes up a 54-foot-long mural with graphite pencil in Arch City Tavern at 862 N. High St.
The tavern is scheduled to open in the former Havana Video Lounge mid-December. Photo © Larry Hamill

In December every shivering soul wants to get off the slushy street and come in from the cold. Xhevair (Xavier) Brakaj and Koli Memushaj will be ready. They look forward to opening the hospitable doors of Arch City Tavern at 862 North High in that frigid month. But when patrons step inside the elegant warmth of the handmade brick and polished wood interior, stamping their feet and blowing their fingers, they may be disconcerted to find High Street and its arches haven’t been left behind. As part of their cozy atmosphere, the neighborhood bar and grill is “bringing the outside in,” Brakaj boasts.

Are they ever.

Brakaj, who owns the Red Door Tavern in Grandview, has been joined by Memushaj to honor bicentennial Columbus with a restaurant soaked in the city’s history. “There are a lot of people who don’t even know this was called the Arch City,” Brakaj remarks, gesturing beyond the hand-built bar to the wall, seven feet high above the molding, by fifty-four feet long. On the immense wall: a black-and-white mural of High Street at Seventh, looking south through the long arcade of arches in 1888. Not only is there a mural inside, but a real, handmade arch, complete with lights, that soars across the room and disappears into the distance above the beautiful street scene.

The cobbled street bustles with traffic of horse buggies and automobiles. Gentlemen and ladies saunter and converse on the busy sidewalks beneath the signs of G. H. Sell and Co., North End Dairy Food, King’s Palace, and Allen Candy Co., while newsboys hawk the Columbus Dispatch in the intersection. Only one odd piece of paper – is it rubbish? – is being blown down the street by the wind. It’s folded, but you can read it – part of it anyway: “Vasiliev Nini.” The name of the artist himself.

The art of the mural thrives in Columbus, but the scale and artistic ambition of this interior work put it in a class by itself. Memushaj recalls that even finding an artist to realize the owners’ ambition was a difficult proposition. They found Nini only by the good luck of connections. Other candidates completely struck out, daunted by the demands of creating a unified scene on a wall posing such an extreme challenge of composition. Brakaj and Memushaj wanted a historical scene featuring North High St. and the arches. But how could an artist devise a picture that could include a perspective of the street with arches fading into the distance – into a very small space, that is – yet incorporate a foreground of such great breadth? The first candidates despaired.

Enter Vasiliev Nini who, even in his first sketches, gave inspiration and life to a remarkable project.

Nini is an Albanian-born American who moved recently to Columbus. He’s a classically trained sculptor educated at the Academy of Beaux Arts in Tirana, Albania. He has placed work of all sizes and materials at locations around the world. His commissioned work is owned by Queen Beatrix of Holland, by sculpture parks in Catanzaro and Aquafirmoza, Italy, and in several Albanian Embassies around the world. He created the Four Martyrs sculpture in Rotkoc, Kosovo, and has done statues of Saint Theresa for commissions in Bronx, Detroit, and two cities in Kosovo. His commissions are found at the San Antonio (Texas) Cathedral, at Texas A & M University, in Omaha, Nebraska, and in Wheeling, West Virginia.

To the thoroughness of his European classical training in the arts Nini credits his comfort in assuming the Arch City mural project. For the historical subject, he chose not only to work in black and white, but he took it one step further by choosing graphite (“pencil”) over ink, paint, or even charcoal. Most of us overlook the fact that even a soft pencil doesn’t really make black marks: the graphite (many of us still call it “lead,” but it is not) yields only various degrees of gray. Depending on the hardness or softness, graphite marks will be either lighter or darker. Graphite is also shiny. This isn’t important in writing a page of mathematics homework, but in drawing, the sheen imparts a special quality to the work. In choosing to work in graphite, Nini knew there would be a resulting luster to the mural.

The owners and artist alike have placed a premium on authenticity in every detail as they have developed Arch City Tavern. Memushaj and Brakaj have cut and laid every handmade brick themselves; they designed and built the hardwood bar themselves, and they constructed the metal arch. They stripped all the interior surfaces of the former Havana Video Lounge to create the atmosphere of 150 years ago through their choices of materials. The furnishings are being made to order, having been commissioned by Amish workmen in Berlin, Ohio.

At the same time, Nini pored through photographs and newspaper clippings to establish the details with which he re-creates indoors the view a person would have seen by stepping out the door in 1888. He has a notebook filled with copies of old photos on which he relied for the cuts of clothing, the construction of horse carriages, fancy and utilitarian, the ways gentlemen wore their hats and women arranged their shawls. He has used his models faithfully, but in the way that puts us in two spaces at once. The insistent detail gives us viewers complete confidence in Nini’s authority: We believe absolutely that he has given us a faithful record of that long-ago street scene, of the look and taste of the time. His choice of black and white, even, heightens the illusion of looking into the past, a time we know through black-and-white images.

Yet for every detail that Nini specifies, he leaves another area sketchy or a little blurry. No single person or building is so meticulously drawn that every gather in the skirt or wrinkle on the awning is filled in. There’s just enough to guide us and just enough to let our imaginations roam.

In fact, future diners will undoubtedly request favorite seats beside the great artwork just so they can keep returning to the details of the mural, for they’ll find that there will always be more to discover in it. For instance, the panel deepest into the room, on a section of wall that is perpendicular to the rest, yet incorporated into the same visual length, Nini has drawn a large hotel, all its rooms occupied and filled with revelers who are silhouetted against the bright interior lights. It’s 1888, isn’t it? No…That couldn’t really be Abraham Lincoln up there, could it?

The entrance to the hotel is a few steps down from the sidewalk. An awning shelters it to protect the guests from rain and the eyes of riff-raff. A noble Native American’s profile decorates the awning, but there is a spectral presence underneath. Who is it? (Hint: He sailed the ocean blue in 1492…)

Between crowd-pleasing fare, an entirely handmade interior, and mural art of stunning conception and execution, Arch City Tavern’s opening is to be anticipated as a loving tribute to Columbus in its bicentennial year, and a vivid reminder of the local, creative inspiration that makes the Short North the jewel in a great city’s crown.

Visit for information about the tavern’s opening at 862 N. High St. in December. To learn more information about Nini and his work, visit

If you enjoyed this article, visit Ann Starr’s blog where she reviews and muses about her experience with contemporary fine art and music.

© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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