Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The View From Above (Part One)

The  ceiling at  Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia didn’t look particularly high on first sight.  What was it ?  Maybe 20 feet off the ground ?  It was only after climbing the scaffold ladder and looking down that I realized my fear of heights would need to be dealt with.  Soon.  Our restoration project was two-fold:  clean the ceiling’s elaborate stenciling and then inpaint the many areas that had suffered damage over the years. Since they don’t make brushes with 20-foot handles it was pretty obvious that I’d have to scale the heights. 
The apse at Emmanuel Episcopal Church after restoration was completed

Emmanuel Episcopal Church is a handsome brick building on Frederick Street, not far from Mary Baldwin College.  Its exterior comes across as strong and handsome due to its spare ornamentation.  Viewing it from the street, you would never expect to find  an exuberant Victorian ceiling inside, a symphony of yellow, rust, orange and cobalt blue.  In the early years of the twentieth century, close to the time the church was erected in 1903, a group of decorative painters was hired to create a wonderful array of patterns on the ceiling of the church apse.  At this writing, I am waiting for confirmation from one of the church members, but it appears likely that the company who did the work was J & R Lamb, out of New York.  (They continue to this day as a firm specializing in stained glass and the design of ecclesiastical spaces). 
                We were hired in 1994, about the time the church was celebrating its centennial. There were obvious cracks and some of the plaster had been totally lost, along with the stenciling.    Soot (a byproduct of the heating system), had significantly darkened the colors.  After the building contractor Gibson Magerfield replaced the missing plaster we proceeded to clean the walls and inpaint the missing stencils.  
                Upon experimentation, it became clear that the ceiling had been painted with tempera and would dissolve if any liquid was applied to it.  Therefore, our options for cleaning were extremely limited.  After trial and error we realized that the best implement for cleaning the soot off the painted areas was a “Pink Pearl” eraser.  Yes, the little eraser that every school child has owned at one time or another.    I went to Office Depot and bought fifty of them. Whenever anyone saw us up on scaffolding with our little erasers they made sure to let us know that there were electric erasers, but these were not practical or time-saving.  We did make one alteration for the sake of ergonomics by putting the eraser in a small c-clamp.  At least holding onto this contraption didn’t put as much strain on our fingers.  
Advances in eraser technology !
                The colors did lighten up considerably after the erasing.  After several weeks of this cleaning stage we were ready to get on with the painting phase where more variety and  challenges awaited us.
                As it turned out, my fear of heights diminished daily as working at high altitudes became routine.  The climb was definitely the worst part, but once I was settled on the large platform I actually came to enjoy scanning the harmonious space and looking down at visitors below.  If there had been a bathroom up there it would have been perfect.

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