January 29, 2018

Inside the Detailed Conservation of a 1909 Courthouse

  • By: Meghan White

At the end of January 2018, the scaffolding inside the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania—rising over 100 feet inside the courthouse’s rotunda—finally came down. For four months, employees with conservation group John Canning & Co. climbed the scaffolding each day, taking inventories, photographs, paint samples, and surveys of the rotunda and its 96 damaged canvas murals.

Pennsylvania architect Frederick John Osterling designed the Neoclassical courthouse, which opened in 1909 at a cost of $2 million dollars ($50 million today), a huge sum for the time. From the exterior, a large, central dome bordered on four sides by smaller domes rises tall from the cruciform-shaped building. Inside, different colored marbles and gleaming bronze decorate the floors, walls, columns, and cornices of the rotunda and corridors. The ceilings in the hallways feature more than 50 paintings by Italian-American artist Vincent Aderente. The rotunda’s paintings on canvas are attributed to a man named V. Pastore. They show allegorical representations of values like truth, freedom, and wisdom, as well as portraits of local and national leaders.

“We’re working in the heart of the building,” says David Riccio, principal at John Canning. “And it’s still an active courthouse, so the building is at times full of pedestrian traffic. We were guiding them literally through the scaffolding.”

While that seems enough of a challenge, the conservation team had their work cut out for them in the rotunda. When the courthouse finally opened, there were immediate problems that have threatened the artwork continuously.

“The building abuts the Susquehanna River,” Riccio explains. “As a result, moisture and humidity get into the building and just stay there.” As early as the 1920s, reports documented damage to the building’s artwork and finishes. Almost each subsequent decade saw the completion of a different renovation project to control the moisture intrusion. However, in 2011, water was discovered flowing into the attic and through the walls. The result was every preservationist’s worst nightmare—efflorescence, erosion, mildew, and black and white mold.

In 2017, architecture firm A+E Group was contracted to oversee the $2.1 conservation project. John Canning won the bid to restore the art. They quickly set to work evaluating the damage and formulating a conservation plan for the building’s interior.

Abraham Lincoln's portrait suffering from efflorescence before conservation.

photo by: John Canning & Co.

A canvas painting of Abraham Lincoln shows damage from efflorescence.

Abraham Lincoln's portrait is back to new after the conservation.

photo by: John Canning & Co.

The painting after receiving conservation treatment.

“About 16 [canvases] were falling [in the rotunda],” notes Marcie Clifford, project manager at John Canning. The murals, some of which measure 8 by 12 feet, were held to the plaster substrate with lead-based adhesives, so any remediation had to include lead-safe zones and designated work areas up on the scaffolding. After conservators took down the affected canvases, they then removed the adhesives, re-lined the canvases, and prepared the substrate before reinstalling them. Only after that could the crew begin the art conservation.

The spaces between the dome and the columns it rests on—commonly called pendentives—show seated female figures dressed in classical garb who represent the different types of law, such as moral and common law. From the ground, the pendentives look like mosaics, but in reality they are painted scenes made to imitate mosaic. Like the panels in the dome, the canvas pendentives had biological growth present, along with paint loss and delamination. Additionally, the efflorescence from the water intrusion burned through the paint coatings, causing further damage.

A John Canning conservator works on the pendentives.

photo by: John Canning & Co.

Rachel Gilberti, project lead conservator, works on one of the pendentives in the rotunda.

Fortunately, the original appearance of the artwork in the dome was easily discernable, but four lunettes in the south lobby weren’t so lucky. Dirt, tobacco smoke, and overpainting hid the original colors and appearance of the murals, first painted in 1909 by Aderente. To discover the original treatments, the conservation team looked at historic photos and writings and conducted microscopy analysis of paint samples to discover each layer of paint.

“You have to look at what the original intent was to determine a specific color, but that artwork now is 100 years old,” says Riccio. “If we put the exact [original] color up, it looks discordant to the rest of the artwork. It requires a bit of adjustment of the color so that it is suitable and supportive of the artwork.”

After studying the lunettes, the team at John Canning realized that they couldn’t remove the overpaint without taking off the original work. Nor could they use any solvent or scalpel to the lunettes without causing further damage. So, they came up with a creative solution.

“Instead of further destroying the original, we decided to encapsulate it and protect it,” Riccio explains. After looking at the artist’s work in other buildings, they replicated the lunettes on new canvases, which they placed over the originals. "Some day, when conservation technology is better, conservators will be able to go back to the original 1909 artwork.”

Until that day comes, however, residents of Luzerne County can be more than content knowing that the meticulously restored artwork and decorative finishes throughout their impressive courthouse will last at least another 100 years.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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