Two skulls. A bunch of tiny lion heads. Countless little painted squares designed to look like mosaic tiles from afar.
These are some of the unique details inside the historic Luzerne County Courthouse rotunda dome visible from scaffolding erected for a $2.13 million restoration project.
Crews from Connecticut-based John Canning Co. have been in the building since the summer repairing art and other finishes damaged by past water leaks and smoking inside the building.
They’ve examined tiny paint samples and mixed up color matches to return the rotunda to the way it looked when the building opened in 1909. In many cases, the original paint was covered by past restoration that was not as “conservation minded,” the company said.
The project must be substantially completed March 9 and finished April 6.
Standing on a scaffolding platform crews call the “dance floor,” county Engineer William McIntosh pointed out the skulls — one with a snake wrapped around it — on part of a painting symbolizing moral law.
“They’re kind of cryptic,” he said, laughing.
The plaster lion heads embellish the base of the dome. They were cleaned and repainted in the original white.
McIntosh said many will be surprised to learn there was no tile used on the dome or supporting arches because the illusion is so convincing.
Portraits of four men grace the dome — Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and George Catlin, a county native celebrated for his paintings of Indian life and customs.
The canvas mural of Catlin had been overcome by mildew and white seepage streaks from the underlying plaster known as efflorescence, said David Gough, John Canning’s historic preservation manager.
“You could barely make out what it was,” Gough said.
A compromised canvas painting containing the word “philosophy” simply fell off the dome onto the scaffolding when crews arrived one day, he noted.
At least a quarter of the 96 murals inside the dome had to be removed for conservation work because they were no longer adhered to the plaster and were only hanging from nail tacks, said Gough.
The other painted words: abundance, art, science, peace, independence, justice, truth, freedom, equality, force and wisdom.
Bowing of stained glass was corrected as part of the project.
A wreath around the dome’s circular stained glass window has been transformed from beige to its original creamy white finish with gold accents.
Wreaths are a major theme throughout the courthouse, including the exterior, said Gough.
“That’s an integral part of the architecture,” he said.
‘Night and day’
McIntosh, who has a background in electrical engineering, said he designed an LED lighting system that will illuminate the dome for 20 to 30 years without harming the finishes. Only six of the 60 dome lights had been working, he said.
He referred to the the dark appearance of the dome in a photograph for the 2009 courthouse centennial celebration.
“It will be much brighter now,” McIntosh said.
McIntosh, who is one of the employees supervising the project, said the dome had been in a sad state, with peeling paint, crumbling plaster and gold accents that had turned brown.
“It looked terrible from all the leakage.”
County council allocated $2.07 million in past-borrowed funds 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.
The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
McIntosh predicts visitors will have a new appreciation for the public building when the scaffolding comes down.
“It’s night and day,” he said.