A giant pair of blue eyes rose over Grand Avenue Sunday in St. Paul, peering out of gold-colored spectacles onto one of the city’s most popular shopping and dining corridors.
Spelled out beneath the spectral eyes are the words: “Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. Oculist.”
The 500-pound, 9-foot-tall and 17-foot-long steel sign stopped some pedestrians in their tracks. One woman asked: “Is he fictional?”
Tom Mischke beamed. It was exactly the “what-on-earth?” reaction he spent 20 years trying to bring to St. Paul to honor author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his best-known novel.
“What would make you open ‘The Great Gatsby’ more?” Mischke later asked. “A statue of him? Or a weird sign from the book?”
The piece of public art replicates a billboard mentioned several times in Fitzgerald’s novel. The eyes often are interpreted as emblematic of God peering down and perhaps passing judgment.
Its origin story started with Mischke, a local writer, musician and radio host who was trying to persuade his friend, David Ulrich, to open a business on Grand Avenue and install a Fitzgerald tribute. But Ulrich, owner of the Spectacle Shoppe, had locations in Minneapolis and elsewhere.
“I didn’t think I needed it,” Ulrich said of a St. Paul location.
Mischke, a lifelong St. Paul resident bent on honoring one of the city’s most well-known natives, was relentless. “I wouldn’t just ask him once a year,” Mischke said. “I’d ask him several times a year.”
Ulrich opened his St. Paul location on Grand Avenue near Lexington Avenue about five years ago, and in the spring of 2017 gave his blessing for the sign.
“I said it’s got to be gigantic!” Mischke said. “They said, ‘It’s going to cover a beautiful stained glass window.’ I said, ‘Cover it!’ ”
The sign was painted by Forrest Wozniak, who previously helped paint a large mural of the author on the Fitzgerald Theater; it was fabricated by Ben Janssens and Forrest Rossi of Solid Metal Arts.
To sweeten the project, Mischke timed its installation Sunday to coincide with Fitzgerald’s 121st birthday.
“The average person may not be aware that this went up on Fitzgerald’s birthday, but I’ll always know that, that this was a gift to this guy’s memory,” Mischke said. “I feel like it’s the least I can do for the gift of that book.”