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Saving the Great Room murals

The Great Room murals, painted in 1934 by David Hicks Overmyer, are the most iconic works of art on the K-State campus

During the fire, some of the most serious damage occurred in the Great Room ceiling immediately above the murals. Water from both the sprinkler system and from the firefighting efforts on the roof saturated the wall and dripped over the surface of the paintings. Then, in the following days, the plaster and masonry wall behind the mural absorbed a large amount of water that was still flowing through the building.

Hale Library Great Room – 07/20/2018 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

Early June

Since early June, the future of the Great Room and its murals have been in the hands of Julia Mathias Manglitz, preservation architect with TreanorHL.

Manglitz examined the murals post-fire. At that time, she worked from a lift to document soiling and streaking on the paintings that resulted from sap running from wood trim directly above. The murals were also stained by dirty water that came from the attic. Additionally, Manglitz discovered areas where paint was cracking and areas that were already exhibiting very small areas of paint loss.

A woman with one hand resting on red metal scaffolding wears a white construction hat and a yellow safety vest. She stands in the foreground of the Great Room while workers in the background examine the murals on the walls.
Manglitz, a preservation architect with two decades of experience, majored in aeronautical engineering in undergrad. “My bosses at TreanorHL like to joke with people: ‘And this is Julia, our resident rocket scientist.’” July 20, 2018. 

When public information officer Darchelle Martin spoke with Manglitz in late July, Manglitz explained that the murals are painted directly on plaster that is attached directly to the masonry walls. In other words, the paint needs to adhere to the plaster, and the plaster needs to adhere to the walls.

“If we lose the plaster, we’ve lost the paintings as well,” Manglitz said. “So I inspected the murals as closely as I could by doing what’s called ‘sounding.’ When we work with materials like plaster and stone, we tap on them with a rubber mallet, and depending on what sound comes back to us, we can tell if something is well-bonded. Hollow sounding plaster is an indication that layers of plaster are starting to delaminate from each other or from the masonry. On my initial evaluation, even though I wasn’t seeing plaster coming away from the walls except in small areas, what I found were large areas that sounded hollow.”

A line drawing of cross sections of the library building indicates where the fire occurred on the roof, the directions from which water entered the building, and how water flow impacted the murals.
“That hollow area was worse once I got near and below the fourth floor line,” she said. “The Great Room is a two-story space, and the fourth floor meets on the back side of this wall. So the water that hit the fourth floor was then funneled back into the plaster and masonry. The entire thickness got wet; it’s not just where it ran down the face of the wall.” 

Late June

Between concerns for paint loss and the potential for plaster loss, Manglitz decided to contact a conservation contractor as quickly as possible. Based on her experience working with John Canning Company on the extensive renovation and restoration of the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, she recommended they be brought onto the project.

Rachel Gilberti, chief conservator at John Canning, has been working in Hale Library since June 22.

Once Gilberti joined the project, more intensive mapping of the mural damage began. By this time, scaffolding had been erected so they could finally make a thorough, up-close examination. They discovered small areas of plaster deformation where it was starting to delaminate from the wall. Other areas of the paint were marked by a fine pattern of dense cracking called craquelure.

At right, a woman wearing a white hard hat scans the surface of a mural with a hand-held black light device.
A black light allows Gilberti to see damage not visible under normal lighting conditions. July 20, 2018. 

“Water escapes through the cracks, which is a good thing, but sometimes the paint can come off, too,” Manglitz said.

Gilberti also noted that it’s important that the wall needs to dry at a stable rate. “If it starts to dry too quickly, the layers begin to separate from one another,” she said. “It’s also important to have the wall dry from both sides and meet in the middle. If it dries just from the back, all of the salts in the stone get pulled into the front and the material on the surface of the stone will come out.”

It could be a long time before the walls are thoroughly dry.

“The walls are fourteen inches thick, and the general rule of thumb for drying mass masonry is one inch per month,” Manglitz said. “That said, it doesn’t have to be perfectly dry before we start the conservation process to visually restore the appearance, but we needed to get it to the point where we feel like it’s safe.”

A woman with one hand resting on red metal scaffolding wears a white construction hat and a yellow safety vest. She stands in the foreground of the Great Room while workers in the background examine the murals on the walls.
We work with sculpture, murals, paintings, anything that’s in the architectural art realm all over the United States. I’ve been doing this almost 14 years in Europe and the United States. It’s a lot of travel, but you go where the art is, and it’s a great pleasure to see all of this beauty that’s spread throughout the country.

Late July

When the wall started to dry, additional small areas of paint began to flake off. Gilberti and her team began a triage campaign to repair small areas of damage and prevent others from worsening.

They used syringes to insert thermoplastic adhesive where they found paint cracking and peeling. Once the adhesive seeped in, they placed a clear piece of mylar over it and heated it with a small iron to get it to set. The process helped them keep the paint layer in place and on the wall.

In the foreground at right, a woman wearing a white hard hat and yellow safety vest applies a white substance onto the wall at left, while in the background, another woman observes the process.
Gilberti oversees conservation specialist Grace Moran administering the thermoplastic adhesive. July 20, 2018. 

As they monitored the drying-out process and addressed the paint delamination, they noted that different colors of paint reacted differently.

“Each color, each pigment in itself has unique traits,” Gilberti said. “Some pigments have less binding in them. All the reds in general are more sensitive pigments, so they react differently, especially to water. Greens are also very sensitive. White is a very stable pigment, so paints mixed with white did very well. The ones that don’t have that extra binding power are what we tried to stop from flaking with the thermoplastic adhesive.”

August

Since the beginning of their efforts to preserve the murals, Manglitz and her team have been collecting data regarding how wet the walls are. Initially, they could only take measurements at the surface, but since then, they’ve inserted probes seven inches or eight inches into the masonry to determine the moisture levels inside the walls.

In a detail from the art deco style "Arts" mural, an actor in flowing maroon robes extends one arm while the other hand is wrapped around his torso in a dramatic gesture.
Metered moisture readings indicate that the surface of the art mural is around 30%, but the in-wall moisture content at the floor level is at 90%, which is very wet for masonry. “This is the most fragile mural, the one we’re most concerned about,” Manglitz said. “We can’t remove the varnish until we’re more confident that it’s stable.” July 20, 2018. 

“Once we determined that the easternmost mural, Industry, was dry and stable enough, we were able to do a surface cleaning to remove the drips from the wood trim above without having paint actively flake off,” Gilberti said. “After that we began removing the varnish coating.”

The protective varnish was applied the last time the murals were cleaned and restored in 2011. Stripping that layer will increase the breathability of the wall.

As the process of stabilizing, drying, cleaning and stripping the murals of varnish continues, Manglitz and her team have several important questions to weigh regarding next steps.

Close-up of the streaking on the surface of the "Arts" Great Room mural which features a female violinist with shoulder-length brown hair.
Detail of the Arts mural. July 20, 2018.

“We need to decide when it’s appropriate to do the conservation work on the murals given amount of repair that has to be completed in the rest of the space and above this space,” she said. “Roof repairs come with the risk of water infiltration, so we’ll be asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to protect the murals? When do we think it’s appropriate to move forward with conservation? What should the sequence be?’”

Even though those questions haven’t been fully answered yet, Gilberti is confident that they will find a way forward to ensure the future of the Great Room murals.

“Every piece of art is salvageable,” she said. “Conservators are here for exactly that reason, to salvage the artwork and preserve what the original artist’s intent is. It’s not one of those situations where they’re going to disappear: They will be saved. We’ve just got to assess as we go. The murals will have damage, but we are here to mitigate that.”

 

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