High Art: Oberlin's Restored Art Museum Ceiling
Ceiling murals dazzle once more at a renewed Ohio art museum.
Until one afternoon this May, I hadn’t walked through the doors of Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum since I graduated 35 years ago. As a student, I’d occasionally spend a quiet hour or so there enjoying the small but impressive collection, which features works by Rubens, ter Brugghen, Turner, Monet, Modigliani, and Picasso, as well as important holdings in Middle Eastern and African art. Anyone who visits the 1917 building by architectural giant Cass Gilbert will remember entering through a grand portico beneath a quote carved into the masonry: “The Cause of Art is the Cause of the People.”
But on this recent visit, when I stepped into the airy King Sculpture Court I noticed a sign reading “Please look up!” So I did. And 37 feet above me was the sculpture court’s newly cleaned and restored ceiling and clerestory, filled with colorful panels of flora and fauna and lines of transcendental poetry. I had observed none of these as a student, because in those days they were covered with layers of dirt and grime.
The ceiling restoration caps a $13.7 million project that has transformed Gilbert’s building, and a Postmodern 1977 addition by the equally influential team of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, into a state-of-the-art, LEED Gold-certified facility -- just in time for the museum’s centennial in 2017.
Established in1833 in a small community about 34 miles from Cleveland, Oberlin is distinguished as the first college in the United States to admit African-American students (1835) and to offer bachelor’s degrees to women (1841) in a coeducational program. The town was a hotbed of abolitionism, and served as a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Oberlin remains a socially conscious, activist campus, also featuring a world-renowned music school. And the Allen Memorial Art Museum, with more than 14,000 works in its collection, is one of the college’s gems.
“We have an encyclopedic collection; I like to call us a mini-Met,” says the Allen’s director, Andria Derstine, as she walks me through the restored galleries. For me, it’s a little like visiting old friends, seeing some of the art on the walls—a Hogarth portrait, J.M.W. Turner’s View of Venice. Derstine’s metaphor is apt; parts of the collection did in fact travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the main galleries were being renovated in 2010.
But unlike the Met, the Allen has been free to all who enter since it opened in June of 1917. The 33,000 people who visit each year represent a true cross-section, from Lorain County schoolchildren and families to students and faculty to senior citizens. Jean Heller, a retired librarian who just turned 90, volunteers at the museum once a week. “Lots of community members visit, and they come from all over the area,” she says.
For the college, the Allen is a valuable resource. “In a lot of ways, the museum, for us, is what a lab is in biology or chemistry,” says art history professor Erik Inglis. Students who take his courses in medieval manuscripts, for example, get hands-on experience with their subject. “[The manuscripts] are meant to be held in your hand, [and] often have really nuanced details—little bits of gold in the margins—which would be useless to talk about in slides,” Inglis says.
And it’s not just art history classes that use the museum. According to Derstine, 180 courses in the college and conservatory, from neuroscience to economics to foreign languages, had students visit the Allen in 2014. In addition, the museum runs a popular and unusual art rental program; each semester, Oberlin students camp out all night to get first dibs on original works of art for $5 apiece. This past year, senior Lodewijck “Oidie” Kuijpers rented prints by American modernists Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly. “I couldn’t have been any happier with that,” he says.
The art rental program was started by the late Ellen Johnson, a popular art history professor, in 1940. “She had the idea that if students were to live with art, in their own dorm rooms, that would help them to develop an aesthetic sensibility,” says Derstine, who estimates that approximately 250 students rent the 400 works of art available each semester. None have ever been lost, stolen, or damaged.
The museum itself, however, had undergone serious damage over the decades. Everyday wear and tear caused paint to flake and parts of the exterior to crumble. Years of air pollution, cigarette smoke (before smoking in the museum was banned), and water damage darkened the sculpture court’s ceiling and clerestory. Beginning in the late 1990s, the college began significant preservation and renovation work on both the Cass Gilbert building and the Venturi-Scott Brown addition.
The Ohio-born Gilbert was already a distinguished architect when he designed the museum, one of his four buildings on the Oberlin campus. He is best known for designing the Woolworth Building in New York, the world’s tallest building when it was constructed in 1913. For the Allen, Gilbert was at least partially inspired by the Ospedale degli Innocente, a 15th-century orphanage in Florence designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, with semicircular arches and a red terra-cotta tile roof. But art conservator Heather Galloway says that even if the Allen’s architecture evokes the Italian Renaissance, “this is a modern building with a decorative skin.” For instance, plaster in the ceiling is molded and cast to look like wooden beams, even though the substructure is steel.
Venturi and Scott Brown’s Postmodern wing, which abuts the Gilbert building, opened while I attended Oberlin. It was somewhat controversial at the time, even if we students loved Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug on the lawn outside and Venturi’s “ironic Ionic” column between the two structures. Inglis says the asymmetrical pink and red checkerboard-patterned addition defers to Gilbert’s symmetrical red and tan original—it’s stepped back from the street, and its entrance doesn’t compete with the main building’s. “Both wings of the museum can be read in ways that tell you how art history was being practiced at the time they were made,” Inglis explains. “And so the Gilbert building is deeply sincere: ‘The Cause of Art is the Cause of the People.’ And there’s none of that sincerity in the Venturi [and Scott Brown] wing, although it’s deeply respectful.”
From 2009 through 2011 a renovation designed by Samuel Anderson Architects removed hazardous materials and replaced the HVAC system with a new geothermal system that helped cut the museum’s energy consumption in half. The project also entailed renovating and expanding the underground art storage spaces, upgrading amenities, and enhancing galleries with insulated ceiling glass and lighting. But even when the Allen reopened, the dirty ceiling of the King Sculpture Court (named after the museum’s first curator, Hazel B. King) was still something of an eyesore.
Enter lead art conservator Andrea Chevalier and ICA-Art Conservation, based in Cleveland. Their work began in earnest in the summer of 2013, when Chevalier and her fellow conservators came to the Allen for a look at Frederick J. Wiley’s ceiling and clerestory. Wiley was a mosaicist and painter who Derstine says was Cass Gilbert’s “go-to guy for decorations.” The two worked together on several projects, including the Woolworth Building. Wiley’s 100 square ceiling panels, which were painted in New York and then installed at the Allen, evoke a 16th–century French chateau, depicting elephants, horses, ducks, musical instruments, and foliage, and covering more than 1,600 square feet.
At ICA’s Cleveland headquarters, Andrea Chevalier shows me pictures of the ceiling and clerestory before, during, and after the restoration. The filthy and damaged “before” surfaces obscure most of the details, while the cleaned-up sections highlight Wiley’s artistry. To figure out how to proceed with the project, Chevalier, Galloway, and other conservators spent three weeks on forensic examination. “We took paint samples, and those were sent in to determine the original color,” Chevalier says. Their work, as well as a cross-section analysis by conservation scientist Richard Wolbers, helped determine that the 1917 hues were much brighter than expected. In the end, the team chose more muted shades, in line with the aging process and the glazing the original painters used.
“You can [now] see these beautiful gradations in the colors of the feathers, and ochers and blues and greens.”Andria Derstine
Chevalier and her colleagues also discovered that the clerestory level had been considerably repainted in the 1930s, including the eight panels featuring stanzas from the 1840 poem “Enosis” by transcendentalist Christopher Pearse Cranch. They removed that newer layer to reveal the original, and had a Cleveland painting company create new stencils to reflect Wiley’s design.
As part of an Oberlin course taught by Heather Galloway, Oidie Kuijpers and his fellow students got to see the work in progress. They observed as Galloway, Chevalier, and three other colleagues painstakingly cleaned the ceiling and clerestory level on 31-foot-high scaffolds, standing for hours at a time. Using thousands of custom-made cotton swabs, they applied a gentle solution that dissolved dirt and oil without harming the artwork. In all, they cleaned the 100 canvas ceiling panels and eight canvas poetry panels, as well as 40 spandrels, while also doing some inpainting and glazing and reattaching loose panels using a special adhesive.
With the work finished, Derstine, Chevalier, and Galloway look up at the ceiling and marvel at details the restoration reveals: the gilding effects, the buttery yellows of the tulips, and the panels featuring birds—where, says Derstine, “you can see these beautiful gradations in the colors of the feathers, and ochers and blues and greens.”
The King Sculpture Court officially reopened in September, and students, alumni, and community members have flocked to the Allen to see it. Andria Derstine says she’s heard nothing but positive feedback from museumgoers about “what a difference it’s made and when they walk in, the space feels lighter, it feels airier, they can actually see, obviously, these amazing designs.” Kuijpers, the recent graduate, calls it “an unbelievable asset. The amount of quality work in the museum is incredible. And it owes a lot to the people who’ve been involved in it throughout its history. It really is a spectacular museum.”