Steps to conserve Penn State's historic Land-Grant Frescoes identified

June 29, 2011

University Park, Pa. – Conservation scientists have completed an extensive series of studies meant to assess the condition of, and to identify steps to conserve, the Land-Grant Frescoes that grace three walls and 1,300 square feet in the lobby of Penn State’s Old Main. The frescoes, widely regarded as historic and artistic treasures, were painted by world-renowned artist Henry Varnum Poor in the 1940s and now are showing signs of deterioration. The works are the only frescoes at an American university created by an American artist.

About 10 years ago, the first signs that something was amiss with the frescoes began to emerge, when very minor portions of the mineral industries fresco on the east wall began to flake off. More problems have surfaced in the intervening years, including the appearance of pinhead-sized pockmarks on the mineral industries fresco, and most recently, the formation of two significant cracks on the Lincoln fresco.

The analysis, which began in 2008 when Penn State commissioned a study by Albert Michaels Conservation Inc., found inherent problems with the mixture of plaster used when the mineral industries fresco was painted. The cracks running through Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and torso have been caused by the settling of bricks in the wall behind the fresco, laid after the building was constructed.

Both issues are exacerbated by a lack of atmospheric control in Old Main’s lobby; studies have found that the space is subject to swings in temperature and humidity as the seasons pass. Add in 70 years of dust and dirt, building renovations, a well-intentioned paint-based touch-up here and an accidental scuff there, and you have frescoes in need of some attention.

“We have learned that the condition that exists has been made worse by the uncontrolled atmosphere in the lobby, and so we have spent a long time monitoring the area to better understand the environment,” said John Rita, chief conservator at Albert Michaels Conservation Inc., who has worked closely with the University on the assessment. “In recent times, there was cracking that occurred in the Lincoln fresco, and the last part of this study was meant to clear up some of the final gray areas.”

This past February a team of investigators finished the last portions of the study, said Gordon Turow, director of campus planning and design at Penn State.

“The final steps involved further exploration into exactly how the building is built and exactly what is behind each crack,” Turow said. Teams used infrared thermal imaging and conducted tests using radar to identify problems beneath the surface of the frescoes, and a structural engineer was brought in to analyze the causes of the cracking in the Lincoln fresco.

“We have done exhaustive, scientific structural analysis with the best in the business,” Turow said. “We’ve photographed and analyzed damage to every square inch of the frescoes, we’ve analyzed the air quality during all of the seasons, we’ve analyzed the lighting and even peeled back the paint on the columns in the lobby in order to better understand the environment.”

In addition to stress caused by environmental instability, the studies have found that maintenance work occurring in the building has been the cause of some unintended damage. As a result, all work in the building must be cleared before it is conducted.

At this point, Turow said, “We have identified the process by which to implement the conservation of the frescoes. We have a plan in place, we know what the scope is, and we know what’s involved in terms of costs.”

Those costs would total about $1.3 million. At a time when budgets are tight across the commonwealth, it’s hard to make the expenditure of funds on the project a top priority. So, the project is on hold. Until a source of funding becomes available, stopgap measures are in place; the cracks in the Lincoln fresco, and a smaller crack on the west wall, are covered with a special adhesive meant to halt deterioration.

A full conservation, Rita said, would involve the installation of an HVAC system and doors in the entrances to first-floor hallways to stabilize the environment in Old Main’s lobby. Next would come a painstaking conservation at a microscopic level. Conservators would encapsulate the frescoes in a working laboratory, he said, with windows to allow for public observation. Working inch-by-inch, they would stabilize the frescoes, remove dirt, restore areas where over-paints have occurred and use traditional materials to fix the small portions of the fresco where there is total loss.

Anne Riley, a member of Penn State’s Board of Trustees and an expert on the history of the frescoes, said the works are historically significant, not just to Penn State but to all of public higher education in America.

“The Land-Grant Frescoes tell the story of public higher education as instigated and conceived by President Abraham Lincoln,” said Riley, whose father, Ridge Riley, was head of the senior class gift committee that funded the frescoes of the north wall in 1932. “They represent Lincoln’s attempt to educate and unite the people of this country, even as he was struggling to keep the country together during the Civil War.”

Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 into law, opening up the opportunity of higher education to Americans who otherwise would have been unable to afford it. The frescoes tell Penn State’s story, from its founding in 1855 through the mid-20th century.

Rita, whose past work includes the restoration of Pennsylvania’s capitol building in Harrisburg, said the significance of the Land-Grant Frescoes moves far outside the boundaries of Penn State and Pennsylvania.

“When these frescoes were created, Henry Varnum Poor was in the top five in ranking as an artist in the United States. He was sought-after and he was very well-known,” Rita said. “Historically, these frescoes are known as his high-water marks. They’re of extreme artistic and historic value, both at Penn State and internationally.”

Poor completed the original fresco on the north wall in 1940; he was commissioned again after World War II and painted the frescoes on the east and west walls from 1948-49.

  • John Rita, of Albert Michaels Conservation Inc., as he worked on the Lincoln Fresco in the lobby of Old Main on Penn State's University Park campus. The fresco is one of a series of works known collectively as the Land-Grant Frescoes, completed by artist Henry Varnum Poor in the 1940s. Click on the image above for a larger version.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated March 12, 2012