Image: Airport murals
Alan Diaz  /  AP
Murals by Brazilian artist Carybe (Hector Julio Paride Bernabo) are seen at Miami International Airport.
updated 7/22/2009 11:29:36 AM ET 2009-07-22T15:29:36

In almost 30 years as a baggage porter at Kennedy International Airport in New York, Darren Hoggard spent slow days gazing at the scenes on the walls of the American Airlines terminal.

On one wall, pioneers with sharp, angled faces and hats rode their horses into the western sunlight, covered wagons in tow, on a backdrop of brown and green plains. On another wall, dozens costumed in bright red, blue and yellow danced and played instruments in chaotic celebration.

"If you stare at that long enough, you might go home and dream about it," 49-year-old Hoggard said.

And then, it seemed, the paintings would be no more, slated for demolition in 2007 along with the rest of the terminal. The news hit Hoggard so hard, it showed on his face, and a passer-by stopped to ask what was wrong.

"Just feeling a little sad about today because next week this could all be gone," he told the woman.

Coincidentally, the passer-by, Beatrice Esteve, was familiar with the murals' artist, who hailed from her native Brazil. Carybe, as the artist was known, visited Esteve's home when she was a child and drank Scotch with her father. She vowed to do whatever she could to help Hoggard.

She did. And now, against the odds, the murals have ended up adorning the walls of the new south terminal of Miami International Airport, despite millions of dollars in moving and restoration costs.

The paintings' thousand-mile trek unfolded like this:

After Esteve talked to Hoggard, she called her friend Gilberto Sa, who also had known Carybe and his family. Sa was on the board of directors of the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which was building terminals at Miami International. Sa, in turn, contacted Gilberto Neves, who heads Odebrecht's U.S. operation, headquartered in Miami.

"Make sure that it's not just going to be dumped in the trash," Neves remembered Sa telling him.

American didn't want to destroy the murals, but Neves said the airline had trouble finding a buyer because of the difficulty removing the canvasses. When workers tried to peel the murals from the terminal walls, the canvas began to tear.

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"We literally thought it would just be rolling it up," Neves said.

But the murals weren't worthless. Carybe won a 1950s American Airlines contest to paint them, beating several leading artists of the day. He was paid $60,000 for "Rejoicing and Festival of the Americas" and "The Discovery and Settlement of the West." He died in 1997.

The murals were eventually removed by cutting the wall away with them. Doors had to be removed to get the slabs — twelve panels, each 16 1/2 feet by 8 feet — out of the terminal. Each slab weighs three tons after being reinforced with steel for support.

The artistic restoration process wasn't easy, either, and the entire process cost Odebrecht more than $2 million, more than 10 times what Neves had originally estimated to the board, though he doesn't like to discuss that.

"How do you put a price to art to begin with?" Neves said.

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