Old Main Frescoes capture Penn State's history and mission

May 20, 2019

For any Penn Stater who’s never taken a walk through Old Main, the Land-Grant Frescoes that adorn the walls of the Old Main lobby are one of Penn State’s greatest hidden gems.

Land Grant Fescoe furnace worker

This panel pays homage to the School of Mineral Industries, a precursor to the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences that had also been previously known as the School of Mines and Metallurgy. 

IMAGE: Pat Mansell

Originally painted in 1940, the frescoes are a visual representation of Penn State’s land-grant mission — specifically, its mission to “promote the liberal and practical education…in the several pursuits and professions of life” for the people of Pennsylvania, as was written into the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Hidden Gems frescoes

A portion of the east wall is dedicated to student life, classroom study and equal education of men and women. Penn State was an early adopted of co-education, first admitting women students in 1871.

IMAGE: Pat Mansell

Other images depicted in the frescoes represent other facets of Penn State and University life, including athletics, agriculture, science and engineering, and music and the arts.

Fresco east wall

The east wall acknowledges Pennsylvania's rich history in the mining industry.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Each of images depicted tie back to Penn State’s history and its mission to educate Pennsylvanians across disciplines for the collective benefit of the Commonwealth.

Hidden Gems frescoes

This portion of the frescoes represents the agricultural wealth of Pennsylvania and Penn State's history as an agricultural school, depicting animal husbandry with cattle, draft horse and sheep.

IMAGE: Pat Mansell

The frescoes were painted by American artist Henry Varnum Poor, who also created murals that adorn the Department of Justice and Department of Interior buildings in Washington, D.C. A master of the fresco technique, in which paint is applied directly to wet plaster, Poor originally only painted the central fresco above the lobby stairwell. However, students voted in 1941 to fund the continuation of the mural, and Poor returned to campus to paint the left and right wings of the Old Main lobby — covering a total of more than 1,300 square feet by the project’s completion in 1949.

Henry Varnum Poor painting the Land Grant Frescoes

In this image from the University Archives, Henry Varnum Pool works on the section of the frescoes depicting Penn State's agricultural tradition, for which he prepared by sketching the livestock being raised on campus.

IMAGE: University Archives

Although the frescoes gradually deteriorated over the following decades due to time and environmental exposure, the University embarked in 2012 on an ambitious restoration project that combined modern science with traditional fresco painting techniques. Completed in 2014, the project restored the frescoes to their original quality and color, preserving these beautiful works of art and history for future generations of Penn Staters to admire.

Land Grant Fresco restoration

Conservation scientist John Rita works on restoring the Land-Grant Frescoes using a technique known as "inpainting," in which he reinstates lost pigment in the painting using a a magnifying headband to help ensure pinpoint accuracy. The active work station is set up behind a divider, allowing him to work in a controlled laboratory setting.

IMAGE: Pat Mansell


Last Updated June 24, 2019