Masterworks


Restoration of rotunda murals recaptures their strange beauty and grandeur.


of The News-Sentinel

War
News-Sentinel photo by Brian Tombaugh

War
"War" was the artist's meaning of this rotunda mural in the Allen County Courthouse.
When local historic preservation planner Don Orban pointed to the rotunda murals during a tour of the historic, century-old Allen County Courthouse, a palpable hush descended over the six awestruck visitors he was guiding.

"Imagine the time, effort and strength that went into it," whispered Fort Wayne's Jane Thompson. The best her husband, Samuel Thompson, could say was "awesome" as he gawked, squinted and craned his neck at Charles Holloway's murals of "Joy and Peace," "Law and Order," "Despotism" and "War" from the third-floor balcony.

Theirs is a fairly commonplace response of those who stop to admire Holloway's murals, which tell the eternal story of mankind's evolution from industrious, law-abiding citizen to merciless, beastly warmonger. Like a larger-than-life childhood fairy tale, the story comes complete with a Moses-like woman holding tablets of God-given law; peaceful handmaidens scattering flowers over the earth; soldiers dragging away women to be lashed; and a chariot drawn by wild horses and fiends, its rider with serpents in her hair.

It's also art speckled with oddities. In "War," for example, a soldier wearing a green skirt has what appears to be an extra leg in between his two. It's a leg apparently not attached to any person in the mural.

Elsewhere, there's a backward swastika -- a Native American symbol for joy. It's the same symbol, but flipped over, later appropriated by Nazi Germany.

And throughout, Holloway's landscapes are inhabited by women with bare breasts and men with exposed buttocks. Their nakedness has made adults blush and schoolteachers scold their students to look away.

Today, thanks to $2 million and three years of painstakingly meticulous artistry to restore them to their original grandeur, the murals resonate with brightness and clarity.

Restoration

It wasn't so long ago when Holloway's murals weren't quite the breathtaking eye-catcher. Garish over-painting by faux artists, combined with benign neglect and decades' worth of accumulation of dirt and grime, dulled the brilliance of Holloway's creation. People would mention the enhanced genitalia of its characters by Depression-era restoration artists as much as they would comment on the mural's majestic themes of war and peace.

As early as 1911, about a decade after the courthouse was built, the county commissioners became alarmed when coal soot was darkening the courthouse interior and the rotunda murals. They hired the William Andrews Co. of Clinton, Iowa, which had the original $33,000 decorative contract when the courthouse was built, so its scrubbers and artists could clean and touch up the interior for another $4,500.

Some of the most egregious alteration, however, occurred decades later during efforts that were meant to freshen up the murals.

During the Depression, when the government was looking to put people back to work, it's not surprising "we ended up with house painters doing our murals," Orban said.

As a result, artisans who repainted the murals around 1934 distorted features and altered colors. They colored in areas with garish shades and accentuated lines, creating much darker, more somber scenes than Holloway had intended.

For example, the Works Progress Administration artists touched up a naked man in ways that "really enhanced him," said Elaine Skoog, director of the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust.

Debra Selden, project manager, said the man in "War" was enlarged to such an extent, "women used to laugh that a guy (is) not that well-endowed." The artist who did the touch-up work even signed his "masterpiece."

Selden, of Ossining, N.Y., worked for Texas-based fine arts conservationist Perry Huston, who was hired by local courthouse aficionados in the mid-1990s to oversee restoration.

Faux art

Artisans in the 1930s also took other liberties with the murals, Selden said. For example, hair was painted on some women where it shouldn't have; it was the artisans having "fun."

The amateur fixer-uppers not only distorted features and altered colors, risking irreparable harm, they signed the murals during another round of touch-ups in the late 1940s, next to Holloway's name. Also, in some areas, Holloway's signature was painted over. It was only in the most recent restoration that paint was removed to expose his name.

Some of the latest restoration work involved stripping off the paint and urethane coating to expose the original detail and artwork. In the 1930s, artisans used casein paint, a protein-based pigment that was "store bought by the gallon," Selden said.

Not only was the casein paint difficult to remove -- a special high-pH solution cleaner was used to break it down -- several of the murals were almost completely over-painted, she said. Artistic conservation from that time "was not too advanced . . . instead of touch-ups, (they) just painted right over. This was the crudest way to do it."

The murals were then covered with a clear coat of varnish; touching up or repainting areas of the mural that had faded was done on the varnish, not the murals, to preserve Holloway's original work.

While meant to last decades, the restoration could one day be removed and the process of filling in Holloway's brush strokes be re-created once again.

Falling apart

By the early 1990s the greatest worry had become that the arc-shaped murals, attached to the walls with glue and tacks, would peel away if left untouched. The fabric backing for the canvases was brittle, the adhesive had dried and some tacks had rusted.

Water damage from the leaky dome also caused some of the canvas to "flap off," Orban said; those were attached with nails as well.

At their largest dimensions, the rotunda murals, which consist of many sections, are 45 feet wide and about 25 feet tall. Extensive, 52-foot-high scaffolding with a dance-floor-sized deck had to be erected to allow artists to work on the murals.

The murals were partially removed from the rotunda wall to be re-secured later by using a special roller device. The cone-shaped roller was designed to protect the unique shaped half-circle murals, allowing the back of the canvas and the walls to be cleaned of old glue and grime. This was done without completely removing the canvas or damaging the surrounding ornamental plaster or pendentives.

Normally, rectangular murals can be taken down completely, restored on the ground, and reglued in their original spot. However, because of their odd crescent-shape, the courthouse murals would have been impossible to take down and then rehang in correct alignment. The roller allowed workers to take off half a mural at a time, wrap it onto the cone-shaped device and reattach the mural exactly where it had hung for nearly a century.

Tears in the canvas, meanwhile, were repaired by attaching a tissue facing that acted like a large Band-Aid while the mural was wrapped on the roller.

Impressive

Selden said Holloway's impressive drawings became evident once the over-painting was removed. In "Joy and Peace," removal of the over-painting exposed the heavy black tracings Holloway used to outline his characters.

Because artists working on the restoration only removed casein paint about a square foot at a time, it took awhile to see the big picture. But when Selden and the other artists finally saw that big picture, "you saw how nicely it was painted."

How faithful is the finished product? Selden said pretty close. "Joy and Peace" was probably the hardest to re-create. It used "fugitive pigments" of green and blues, that without original color photos, were the most challenging to match.

Overall, Selden said she and the other artists are pleased with what hangs in the rotunda today. And they remain impressed with the artistry and craftsmanship -- capped off by the murals -- that's usually only found in a museum, not "a working courthouse."

Timeless

Despite a century of painting, over-painting, erasing and re-creating, Holloway's murals continue to speak to those who experience them.

"You can look for hours and always find more details overlooked,'' said Sam Cole of Syracuse, taking a break from his courthouse tour. It would take a person "an awful lot of time to read the details."

And for Mary Ann Edmonds of Marion, the mystery in the murals is part of their fascination.

Edmonds has seen the murals before but still finds them "amazing" every time she gazes at them. "The longer you look, the more you see," she said.

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