Study aimed at preserving Land-Grant Frescoes

January 21, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- Penn State has commissioned a study aimed at preserving one of its most beloved artistic treasures, the Land-Grant Frescoes in Old Main. The frescoes, begun in 1940 and completed in 1949 by nationally known muralist Henry Varnum Poor, depict the history of the University as Pennsylvania's sole land-grant institution from its founding in 1855 through the mid-20th century.

"The Land-Grant Frescoes are among the largest works of their kind of any college campus and really embody the spirit and essence of Penn State," said Gordon Turow, director of campus planning and design. "It is important to be good stewards of this unique work of art, so that future generations of Penn Staters can appreciate it as an artistic masterpiece and as a window on the University's evolution."

The University has retained Harrisburg-based Albert Michaels Conservation Inc. to conduct a study of the entire fresco painting. Turow said the study is expected to yield information about the frescoes' current condition and recommend steps that may be appropriate to conserve and restore the frescoes.

"The University commissioned this study because we have noticed some subtle changes and slight damage over time," Turow said.

The fresco technique involves applying water-mixed earth pigments to wet plaster, so that the painting becomes part of the wall. The Land-Grant Frescoes cover about 1,300 square feet and spread across three walls in Old Main's second-floor lobby.

"Frescoes by their very nature are fairly stable, long-lasting works, but like anything else, they are subject to deterioration, especially if not properly cared for," said John Rita, Albert Michaels' chief conservator. "Thus far we've found that the frescoes suffer from some common problems that you might expect in a public place, such as humidity, air currents that carry dust and grease-based soil, and scratches from cleaning and simply being exposed to innumerable passersby over the years. In addition, since the frescoes are actually part of the building structure, they are vulnerable to the stresses of building expansion and contraction."

Rita noted that work is now centered on the mining panel because it also shows evidence of spalling, where tiny fragments of the frescoes have flaked off, possibly as a result of the way the plaster was mixed.

A rectangular grid made of string will temporarily cover the panel, enabling conservators to photograph that part of the frescoes in detail and guiding their plan for stabilization and restoration.

Turow said decisions about potential next steps will be made after the University has a chance to study Albert Michaels' final report, due in April 2009.

Albert Michaels' previous experience includes projects ranging from restoration of private works of art to portions of entire public buildings, such as the state Capitol Building in Harrisburg and the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington.

The Land-Grant Frescoes, initiated as a gift of Penn State's class of 1932 and supported by later classes, can be viewed by the public during normal business hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Visit to learn more about the frescoes.

  • Conservators build a grid of yellow string over the mining panel of the Land-Grant Frescoes that will enable the panel to be photographed section by section.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 22, 2012