Historical Society honors restoration, preservation of Land-Grant Frescoes

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Centre County Historical Society has recognized Penn State for its work in restoring the Old Main Land-Grant Frescoes, created by noted American muralist Henry Varnum Poor. The award was conferred at the society's 27th annual John H. Ziegler Historic Preservation Awards ceremony, held Oct. 25.

"The Land Grant Frescoes were created to capture the compelling history of early Centre County and of Penn State," said Mary Sorensen, executive director of the Centre County Historical Society. "Their meticulous restoration preserves the artwork and their stories for many future generations of students, residents and visitors, making this project an exemplary nomination for a Preservation and Restoration Award."

Penn State alumna Anne Riley, former president of the Penn State Alumni Association and emerita member of the University's Board of Trustees, accepted the award on Penn State's behalf and shared an overview of the frescoes' history and the renovation process with those who attended the event.

"The best projects at our University are those for which the whole Penn State community works together to make good things happen — students, faculty, alumni, staff, trustees," said Riley at the ceremony. "The frescoes present artist Henry Varnum Poor's interpretation of the founding and growth of a college, that became a land-grant school with a mission of teaching, research and service."

"The frescoes show us who we are; they show us our mission here," she added. "When we share that, we present the very soul of Penn State."

The north wall of the Land-Grant Frescoes in Old Main

The restored Land-Grant Foyer of Old Main at Penn State, featuring the north wall of the Land-Grant Frescoes. On this wall, completed in 1940, Henry Varnum Poor symbolically portrayed the promise of higher education and the fledgling college's activities in agriculture, mineral industries, and engineering, centering around likenesses of Abraham Lincoln and a young student planting a tree.

Image: Laura Waldhier

The 1,300-square-foot frescoes, located on in the second floor of the foyer in Penn State's main administration building, are considered by many to be a treasured piece of American art history. Poor worked in true fresco, painting directly on freshly applied wet plaster. With different portions completed in 1940 and 1949, the work began as a gift of the class of 1932, with additional support from several classes in the 1940s.

Over the years, the frescoes suffered damage due to time and exposure to the environment. Fluctuating heat, cold and humidity had caused cracks, flaking and pockmarks in many of the panels. Light, dirt, soot and oils dimmed the colors and created a bacteria-friendly surface. Previous upgrades and attempts at repair by unspecialized craftsmen had left their own set of problems, including several layers of paint that had been applied to portions of the murals which would have to be carefully removed so as not to affect the original surfaces.

In 2007, Penn State approached Ann Beha Architects, of Boston, to prepare a master plan that included both the conservation and restoration of the frescoes and also the necessary upgrades to address Old Main's lobby environment.

The University engaged Harrisburg-based Albert Michaels Conservation, a firm that specializes in restoring historic works to their original condition, to conduct a study of the frescoes' condition. Along with the artists and architects, the project team included members of Penn State's Office of Physical Plant, including Gordon Turow, director of campus planning and design, who proposed a plan by which the frescoes would be restored to a state as historically close to the original as possible.

Utilizing a mobile forensic laboratory in Old Main throughout the process of restoration, the conservators inspected, cleaned, stabilized and inpainted (the reinstatement of lost pigment) the frescoes. In addition, the team restored the entire lobby to its original paint colors and finishes at the time of the frescoes' creation, and added improved, state-of-the-art climate control and lighting to the space. The end result of the renewal maximized the value of today’s technologies while preserving the architectural integrity of the lobby.

The two-year restoration project, funded in part by a $1.5 million gift from L. James Schmauch, was completed in the spring of 2014. Visitors to Old Main could see the process as it happened because the work was done without closing the building.

The Centre County Historical Society has hosted the awards program to recognize outstanding efforts in historic preservation since its inaugural year in 1988. Named for Penn State 1936 alumnus John H. Ziegler, the program has conferred 181 historic preservation awards to date.

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Last Updated February 02, 2016