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Experts Restore Murals at Penn State's Old Main Building

by on June 09, 2014 6:15 AM

Inside the Old Main building at University Park there are colorful murals depicting coal miners, agriculture and Abraham Lincoln.

Today, the colors are a little brighter and the details a little finer thanks to a two-year restoration project completed in April.

American fresco artist Henry Varnum Poor painted the murals between 1940 and 1949. The main mural centered over the staircase depicts Lincoln signing the Morrill Act of 1862, which created the land-grant university system of which Penn State is a member.

In 2000, staff noticed markings on one of the murals and there was a fear vandals had damaged the art. However, a closer look by experts showed the artwork was deteriorating for a number of reasons, according to John Rita with Albert Michaels Conservation.

Rita's firm conducted a preliminary study, which led to a more in-depth study that included input from additional experts.

"What we learned was that over the course of time there were environmental problems in the space," says Rita.

The problems included the absence of a quality heating, cooling and ventilation system to control the environment. For example, when Rita arrived to investigate the site, the inside temperature was roughly 95 degrees and the windows were open while it was raining, allowing moisture inside.

Time and the environment caused cracks, peeling and deterioration. What the team found was "a cancer that can't be cured, but it can be slowed down," Rita says.

To determine the cause of cracking on the Lincoln mural, a structural engineer had to look behind the wall, where he found compression in the mortar brick.

As a temporary measure, the team placed tissue over the surface with a special adhesive to keep the artwork together and prevent more pieces from falling off the mural. The team then stabilized the cracks by filling them in with a plaster and wax mixture using syringes and microscopes.

The restoration crew also removed dirt and contaminants from the murals.

Additionally, the project included changes not directly involving the murals themselves. As it turns out, Poor carefully selected his color scheme based on the other colors in the room – the décor. Rita says the university later changed the colors of the décor, which unintentionally altered the appearance of the murals.

By restoring the original decoration – such as a lit chandelier above and light torches at the stairway and returning the two-toned flooring – the artwork now visually appears as the artist intended.

"Poor was very conscious of his environment and that was a big part of what we did here," Rita says.

Any touch-up or "in-painting" the team performed was with watercolor and can be removed, Rita says. That means as technology improves, their work can be undone and replaced using newer tools.

The restoration crew included AnnBeha Architects; David Tull, owner and manager of Albert Michaels Conservation; and Jeff Johnson with Johnson & Griffiths. The team worked with Penn State's Office of Physical Plant through Gordon Turow, director of campus planning and design.

"This project was an extraordinary opportunity to repair a half-century of environmental damage and return these works of art and their setting to original conditions," says Turow. "Thanks to the work of many hands, we have been able to restore the Old Main lobby, conserve the frescoes, and preserve this treasured piece of American art history."

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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