Living with Art > A Glorious Restoration
Buried under layers of old paint, the decorative mural was uncovered last February in the dome at New Hampshire’s oldest theater, the historic nine hundred- seat Music Hall in Portsmouth. The Music Hall’s domed ceiling was a wreck, says Jeff Greene, a restoration expert and president of Evergreene Painting Studios of New York, referring to the deteriorating plaster and severe water damage. He wasn’t optimistic about finding anything of interest under the five layers of white paint, since the ceiling was in such bad shape. But an old newspaper clipping showed images of a horse, crescent moon and stars on the dome (see the links at www.the musichall.org), and he thought he might find that. Greene never did, but what he found last year was even more striking—a Victorian-era decorative painting.
The Process of Restoring the Painting
Working from scaffolding, the architectural restorers began the painstaking job of removing layers of paint. “Once we got beneath the layers, we immediately found the painting,” Greene explains. The initial finding was a giant cartouche, a tear-dropped design reaching twelve feet high with Athena’s head nestled near the bottom. The Greek goddess Athena is credited with the invention of music and is associated with wisdom. Ultimately four major cartouches were uncovered—each extending from one of the four corners of the dome to the center of The Music Hall ceiling.
The ceiling design is broken into four arcs. The center of each is a soft, mottled teal color that suggests depth and sky. The arcs contain large fields of a damask motif rendered in a soft salmon color. These designs are further embellished with minimal gold leafing on elements such as scrolls, trompe l’oiel and ornamental flourishes. Although between 50 percent and 60 percent of the dome’s decorative painting was lost due to water damage, enough remained so Evergreene’s artists could re-create the original work. In Evergreene’s New York studio, the artists reconstructed the dome design on hundreds of canvas pieces. At The Music Hall, these small canvas pieces were fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle and reinstalled on the ceiling. Laser levels ensured a seamless fit, without overlap or wrinkles.
While the techniques for producing the canvases are very modern, the notion of using canvas has been around for hundreds of years—canvas not only lasts a long time but it’s also a costeffective choice that bridges small plaster cracks. “We use the latest in digital technology, but in the end, we’re doing the same things as the guys who did it originally,” Greene says. “They had supreme common sense back then. No computers. No calculators. Nothing. So you have to be in awe of their skill and sheer common sense.”
The goal for this restoration, Greene says, was to retain as much of the original wood-lathe plaster from the 1800s as possible. That called for drilling small holes into the ceiling and injecting a viscous adhesive that adds strength to the structure and re-secures the ceiling, as opposed to ripping out the plaster and replacing it.
“Keep in mind,” says Zhana Morris, historian for The Music Hall, “that the dome’s decorative painting was created by tradesmen, not fine artists. Those who worked on our dome were doing similar, though not quite as intricate, work in people’s homes. But they probably were not sitting in the park painting landscapes in their spare time.” These artistic skills, she says, were common to painters and plasterers then, whereas today you find a more utilitarian approach to this type of work. To many Victorian painters and wallpaper hangers, “painting” usually included creating artistic murals or stenciled borders, not just slathering paint on a wall with rollers.
The Seacoast boasts other historic decorative paintings like those in The Music Hall—the Warner House in Portsmouth and the Hamilton House in South Berwick, Maine, have several murals dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. The Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle has an exquisitely painted dome crowning its dining room. The Rochester Opera House is regaled for two frescoes recently restored to their original colors. Several private homes in the Seacoast also enjoy historic decorative paintings.
Preserving these historic pieces of art takes professional knowledge and know-how. Peter Michaud, special projects director for the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources, offers some advice. Protection from light and moisture is paramount, he says. Additionally historic paintings should be covered with a protective coating—a conservator should be consulted before undertaking that task. “It’s best to keep in mind that there’s a historic record in the paintings, and we should honor that,” he says.
“This is a glorious restoration. We are experiencing a renaissance,” says Patricia Lynch, executive director of The Music Hall.
“The point of it all,” Greene adds, “is that the interior is now back in balance with itself. That hasn’t been the case for a hundred years. Finally, the pieces all fit together as the original designers intended.”
Tour the Music Hall
Saved from the wrecking ball in the mid-1980s, The Music Hall operates much as it did in 1878, bringing the region world-class entertainment with acclaimed films, music, theater, author appearances and dance performances. In 2003, The Music Hall received a $400,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that it matched with corporate and individual contributions to raise a total of $1 million. The funds are being used to restore The Music Hall to its late-nineteenth-century splendor, an era when theaters were designed to present a grand and elegant environment.
The Music Hall opens its doors for once-a-month guided tours, which take visitors behind the scenes and through the history of the celebrated theater. Tours take place the third Wednesday of each month at noon and begin in the lobby at 28 Chestnut Street. Tickets are $6 ($5 for members) and can be purchased at www.themusichall.org or through the box office at 436-2400.
The MetropolitanOpera Comes to the Music Hall
Music Hall patrons now enjoy matinee performances of the Metropolitan Opera broadcast live fromLincoln Center and shown on The Music Hall screen in high definition with Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound. The opera program also includes live interviews and specially produced features to give audiences a look at the behind-the-scenesaction.
All performances are matinees — see www.themusichall.org for specific times—and tickets are$27.50.
January 1: Hansel and Gretel
January 5: Romeo et Juliette
January 12: Macbeth
February 16: Manon Lescaut
March 15: Peter Grimes
March 22: Tristan und Isolde
April 5: La Bohème
April 26: La Fille du Regiment