View From the Top

Written by: Ann Dillon, President General
September 5, 2017

Serving as President General has given me many unique opportunities, but the most recent is perhaps the most memorable.  Monday of my scheduled August work week at National Headquarters included a visit to Constitution Hall to see the progress on the stage restoration.  Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of scaffolding floor to ceiling, flag side to banner side.  It appeared to be a stage set for West Side Story, on steroids.  As I studied the maze of pipes and platforms more carefully, a series of stairs straight from the bottom to the top could be seen and miniature people became apparent as they worked to analyze and clean the flags, state names and eagles.

A sense of adventure took over and later in the day, with a photographer in tow, I began the ascent to the summit.  Staring eye to eye with the majestic eagles and clearly seeing the Gadsden battle flag with its familiar coiled snake, I was struck with a sense of awe to consider these were originally completed in 1929.  I have asked Katie Irwin, AIA, IIDA, project manager, and Anne Kopf, project architect, with Quinn Evans Architects to explain more about the process.

Constitution Hall Phase 2 Stage Restoration
Katie Irwin, AIA, IIDA, project manager, and Anne Kopf, project architect, Quinn Evans Architects

With the scaffolding in place, we were able to get up close and personal to view the original construction of the murals. The murals are actually canvas adhered directly to the plaster of the dome and cornice with adhesive and small tacks. The canvas was originally painted off-site, then trimmed into several sections to fit into their final positions. Several gaps between the canvas pieces are a testament to the challenges of fitting a flat canvas mural onto a rounded surface.

We were also able to view the mural restoration in progress. Olin Conservation has been working tirelessly, cleaning the mural with tiny swabs, taking care not to damage the original artwork. In order to determine the appropriate restoration process, the existing conditions were studied. Through paint analysis techniques and microscopic imaging, some interesting discoveries were made by the conservators. The murals were cleaned at least once previously in the last 88 years. There was some noticeable damage to the paint, most likely due to a harsh cleaning process. There was also a layer of yellowing varnish on the eagle and flag mural (though, not the states murals) that was casting a dull, yellowed sheen over the entire artwork. There were also several areas where the canvas was bubbling and pulling away from the plaster due to failure of the adhesive.

View photos here.

With their findings and observations in mind, the conservators created a four-step process to clean and restore the artwork:

1) Cleaning - Removing dirt, dust, and the existing layer of yellowed varnish.

2) Structural Stabilization - Repairing any canvas that is pulling away from the plaster.

3) Retouching - Any holidays (spots of missing paint), chips, and tack heads that need touching up will be carefully painted, dot by dot, in place.

4) Varnish - A satin/non-glossy varnish will be applied to protect the mural and intensify the colors. Care will be taken to choose a varnish that enlivens the mural, but is not so reflective that the stage lights do not create unwanted glare.

When we visited the site, there was already a noticeable difference between the cleaned and existing areas of the murals. With new cleaning materials and technologies, the conservators will be able to return the murals back as close to their original state in 1929 as possible. When the scaffolding comes down, the murals will continue to be enjoyed for many years to come.

 

While up high on the scaffolding, we got a sneak peak of the restored 1929 paint scheme in the form of a paint mock-up on the wall, eagle, and plaster bracket. A historic paint analysis of all the painted surfaces in Constitution Hall was conducted by Artifex, Inc.  The results of this analysis showed that the colors are typical of John Russell Pope's work with a pale, subtle palette. As it is stated in the September 1929 issue of the DAR Magazine, “The architecture, Colonial in detail, is particularly appropriate. The colors and appointments will show, not only a harmony of art and design, but the buff and blue tones of the emblematic colors of the Daughters of the American Revolution.”  The restored paint colors in their neutral palette will be an appropriate backdrop for the newly restored murals.

Thank you so much for your generous support of this project. Without your support of the President General’s Project, this much needed renovation would not be possible.

If you are interested in supporting this project, please visit www.dar.org/PGDillon.

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