At least a quarter of the 96 murals inside the Luzerne County Courthouse dome had to be removed for conservation work because they were literally falling off the ceiling from past water damage, restoration company representatives said this week.
The murals had been secured to the plaster with both adhesive and nail tacks during construction of the historic structure on River Street in Wilkes-Barre, which opened in 1909.
“If it weren’t for the tacks, these murals would have been on the floor a long time ago,” said Rachel R. Gilberti, a conservator at Connecticut-based John Canning Co., which is handling the $2.128 million restoration project.
Fears about falling plaster prompted officials to install see-through netting at the interior dome base several years ago.
Swiping through her cell phone gallery, Gilberti showed stark examples of before-and-after mural restorations completed since the company started work this past summer.
Mold, missing sections, water and nicotine stains, and powdery white seepage streaks from the underlying plaster known as efflorescence were found on many of the canvas murals, said David Gough, John Canning’s historic preservation manager.
“Some of them were really bad,” Gough said.
All the rotunda murals will be saved and restored to their appearance in 1909, including another four large deteriorating paintings of women representing common law, statute law, moral law and equity, the representatives said.
These four paintings are known as “pendentives” because they are in curved, triangular vaulting between the rim of the dome and supporting arches.
An outside assessment had concluded the pendentives were “highly compromised” by mold, mildew and fungus. After John Canning established the plaster base was solid, a decision was made to clean and restore them in place to avoid potential irreversible damage from removal, Gough said.
The circular stained-glass window depicting the county seal atop the dome, called the “oculus,” has been removed and shipped to an Iowa studio for restoration and repair due to serious bowing.
The material holding the pieces of stained glass together may be too soft, causing bowing, Gough said.
“They have better alloys now that are harder and will take the weight better, so that’s not going to be a problem anymore,” he said.
Cleaning of rotunda marble and metal finishes also is underway as part of the project. Decades of soot and nicotine have darkened them, Gough said, running his hand along a cleaned and shiny marble section that no longer feels gritty to the touch.
The first-floor lobby outside the courthouse county council meeting room was included in this first phase of interior restoration work as a pilot project, but funding was not available to address other lobby areas, courtrooms or alcoves decorated with mosaic and portraits of historical figures.
Four wall paintings in the south lobby known as lunettes won’t be restored to their original appearance because it is not feasible to remove a historically inaccurate version that had been painted over the originals during a past restoration, Gough said.
Instead, Gilberti has analyzed test samples of the original to prepare sketches and color matches needed to reproduce new paintings resembling the originals. The replicas will be placed over the current versions with removable adhesive in case there’s a desire, funding and new technology to restore the originals down the road.
Restoration projects weren’t always as “conservation minded” decades ago, Gough said.
“They would sand and scrape the canvas. They would obliterate the original,” he explained.
Original ceiling paintings were saved. Gilberti removed a yellow varnish, cleaned the surface and repainted missing spots.
Sixty-five percent of one of the ceiling murals was detached and hanging by nail tacks. Gilberti had to inject conservation adhesive bit by bit with a hypodermic needle while performing a heat and moisture treatment to shrink and smooth out the canvas back into its original position.
“It’s very, very time-consuming,” she said.
Gilberti uncovered a green leaf stencil pattern on the ceiling that had been hidden under paint, which also has been reproduced.
Pink and gold molding was returned to the original beige. The initial color scheme was designed to make colorful accents and paintings stand out, not to compete with them, she said.
“This is exactly how the original palette of this lobby was in 1909,” she noted.
The project must be substantially completed March 9 and finished on April 6.
County council allocated $2.07 million for the project in the capital plan, and the county received an $80,000 state Historical and Museum Commission grant plus $104,385 from casino gambling revenue. John Canning was the low bidder.
The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Preservation is worthwhile, Gilberti said, because the building was created by artists and with materials from all over the world. She believes it is also part of the county’s history and heritage.
“It’s very rare that you see a new building with such extravagance, with such beauty, with such time that was put into it for people to come in to see it and be in awe of the beauty,” she said.
Gough described the structure as a “civic cathedral.”
County Manager C. David Pedri said the courthouse is a “jewel” that must be properly preserved for future generations. The administration will continue seeking grants to fund additional work, he said.
Pedri was surprised to see the difference in the south lobby, and many courthouse visitors have marveled at the improvements so far.
“Now you see the full grandeur of this building and how artists took time to craft these beautiful murals,” said Pedri. “We’re lucky to have this historic structure here in Northeastern Pennsylvania.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.