Conservators begin work on Penn State's Land-Grant Frescoes

March 12, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Preliminary work began March 12 on the restoration of the lobby of Old Main and the conservation and ultimate preservation of the historic Land-Grant Frescoes on Penn State’s University Park campus. The frescoes project, funded by a $1.5 million gift from an anonymous donor, will be accompanied by the restoration of the entire Old Main lobby to reflect accurately its appearance in 1948 when the 1,300-square-foot frescoes were completed by Henry Varnum Poor. The works are the only frescoes at an American university created by an American artist, and the risk that this landmark might be damaged irreparably prompted a highly sophisticated initiative to preserve the frescoes for posterity.

Poor created the first fresco in Old Main in 1940, supported in part by a gift from the Class of 1932. Deterioration first became apparent in 2001, and many portions, such as the central image of Abraham Lincoln, have developed alarming cracks. In 2008, Albert Michaels Conservation Inc. from Harrisburg, Pa., assessed the level of damage and risk and proposed a conservation plan that was finally made financially feasible through a generous and anonymous philanthropic gift.

Jeff Johnson, an artist working with Albert Michaels, will spend the next few days on the first phase of the lobby restoration process. In small test areas, he will meticulously remove each layer of paint applied over the years to expose the original colors and historic finishes that would have greeted visitors to Old Main nearly three-quarters of a century ago.

The non-invasive work that will be taking place during regular business hours this week will be followed by multiple phases over the next two years to conserve the frescoes themselves and restore the walls, ceilings, moldings and woodwork per historic specifications. The final phase will be to make required changes to the utility infrastructure in Old Main to remove the environmental hazards that have contributed to the frescoes' degradation. A master plan developed by Ana Beha Architects will ensure that the humidity, temperature control and air quality of the lobby will preserve the frescoes in a stable environment.

Beginning in May, additional artists from Albert Michaels Conservation will construct a laboratory space around sections of the frescoes to conduct their work. Visitors will be encouraged to watch the progress through special windows and learn more about the conservation process.

To learn more about the frescoes' history, visit

  • Old Main is the home of the Land-Grant Frescoes, depicting Penn State's founding and early development, painted by Henry Varnum Poor in 1940 and 1949. This photo was taken in Old Main's lobby in 1948. The frescoes, considered by many to be a treasured piece of American art history, will be conserved thanks to an anonymous, $1.5 million philanthropic gift.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 22, 2012