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Penn State to restore Old Main frescoes

by Lewis Jillings

In March restoration work began to refurbish the lobby of Old Main for the first time since 1948. Work is being done to restore the frescoes in Old Main to its original grandeur and to repair the cracking walls.
The murals depict the activities of the University’s role in engineering, mineral industries, and agriculture, and honors the creation of land grant universities through the Morrill Act. The murals, done in fresco style, cover 1,300 square feet. They are the only university frescoes in the US created by a major American artist.
Grave damage to the frescoes was first noticed in 2001, with serious cracks in the towering central figure of Abraham Lincoln, and elsewhere. In 2008, Albert Michaels Conservation Inc. from Harrisburg examined the frescoes and proposed a conservation plan. More recently, it has become apparent that the fresco walls can be affected by routine actions such as hanging picture hooks or moving furniture in nearby offices, and emergency conservation is essential.
A generous philanthropic gift from L. James Smauch, a 1936 Science graduate, made it feasible to embark upon the multi-year project, which will cost about $1.5 million. In November 2012, the Board of Trustees approved the project.
Numerous phases of work in the next two years will repair and conserve the frescoes and restore the walls and ceilings, moldings and woodwork in accordance with the lobby’s original concept: there is now a small sample on display to demonstrate the original finishings.
The other major component of the project is to ensure a stable controlled environment in the lobby area to prevent future deterioration of the frescoes: humidity and temperature controls, plumbing upgrades and replacement of the perimeter heat system, and air quality filters. This is the task of Ana Beha Architects.
The whole area of the stairs to the mezzanine floor and much of the lobby is now walled off for complete protection of the conservation work. The main stairs are closed. Numerous offices are being fitted with false walls several inches from the structural walls of the frescoes, and several have plastic hangings during construction work.
Artist Jeff Johnson began the restoration by painstakingly removing each layer of paint to determine the original colors and historical finishes.
To clean a fresco, the conservator uses pads to remove the dull grey film the surface has acquired. Then cotton compresses are used to apply solvent which can remove errant drips and preserve the sensitive colors. John Rita and Ted Holland from Albert Michaels Conservation are inspecting the lobby, to clean and stabilize the frescoes and reinstate lost pigment.
Within the protective wooden lab space they have constructed, they work like forensic scientists, researching archives and deploying technology to determine the types of paint, the colors, and the artist’s original intentions.
Specially aged pit lime is added to sand to match the original plaster. Chemicals are injected to stabilize the pigment foundation for further treatment, and microscopic examination enables the conservators to use a brush with a single hair to restore pigment where the loss of even a grain of sand is the loss of some color: painstaking and detailed work, which is currently illustrated on a couple of display boards on the mezzanine level. It is intended that visitors may observe progress through special windows and learn more about the conservation process.
There are already some surprises. Early conservation work has uncovered some unsuspected violets, grays, and browns; vibrant pastels are appearing, and the use of lapis lazuli yielded rich blue shades in the Mining wall that will be examined further.
As layers of grime are removed from the Agriculture wall, what looked like a dark corner emerges as the face of a pig, and touches of Poor’s humor can be recognized: the face of President Evan Pugh can be seen as he leads a seminar, and Poor’s own dog is depicted beneath a table.
The original Old Main building, which owing to the University’s uncertain finances had been built as cheaply as possible, was deemed structurally unsound in the 1920s and razed in 1929. Philadelphia architect Charles Klauder, who designed the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt, was commissioned to design the replacement building.
Klauder kept many of the elements embodied in the original building. He retained much of the original stone to reconstruct the outside walls and topped the new building with a tower that contains the clock and bell from the original.
The new building, which is usually described as Federal Revival in style, has a touch of neo-classical grandeur through the addition of a portico with eight limestone pillars overlooking the front lawn.
According to information at the website, Harold E. Dickson, J. Burn Helme, and Francis E. Hyslop, then professors of art and architectural history, are credited with the proposal for a mural to depict the University’s foundation and development as a land grant university. The Class of 1932 Gift enabled the University to select Henry Varnum Poor, one of the country’s leading artists.
After six months of making sketches, Henry Poor began painting in April 1940 using the fresco technique. This involves applying paint direct onto wet plaster, so that the pigment becomes part of the actual wall. This calls for accuracy in shape and color, and quick work.
Also according to the website, Poor’s daughter Anne, who later became a noted artist herself, applied a day’s worth of plaster on the walls each morning, and her father, working quickly, painted to his sketches, completing the initial project, on the north wall in June 1940.

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