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Effort to Uncover History and Restore an Illusion

Posted on 30 October 2013

Old Whalers' Church parishioner Nancy Cory helped inspire the upcoming effort to restore the trompe l'oeil mural behind the pulpit of the church. (Michael Heller photo).

Old Whalers’ Church parishioner Nancy Cory helped inspire the upcoming effort to restore the trompe l’oeil mural behind the pulpit of the church. (Michael Heller photo).

By Annette Hinkle

Most people would agree — Sag Harbor’s Old Whalers’ Church is an architectural wonder. The vision of architect Minard Lafever, the structure dates to 1844 and is a prime (and rare) example of Egyptian revival design. Even without its massive 180-foot steeple, which was lost in the 1938 hurricane, the building is a gem both inside and out.

And inside, there is one distinct feature which may hint at cost overruns during the construction process — the trompe l’oeil painting on the wall behind the pulpit which mimics a curved apse, a structure which may or may not have been part of Lafever’s original design, but in any case, was never built.

Trompe l’oeil means “trick the eye” and when the mural was completed in 1844, the intention was to suggest the presence of a curved recess that wasn’t in fact there. But several subsequent re-paintings of the mural (in 1871, 1886, 1902, 1909 and finally in the 1960s or ‘70s) have left no visible trace of the original.

Unfortunately, the current mural, while well-intentioned, doesn’t quite capture the magic of trompe l’oeil which is dependent upon shadows and detail to give the illusion of a curved space extending beyond the confines of a flat wall.

But now the Old Whalers’ Church is embarking on a mission to restore the trompe l’oeil design, and if all goes as planned, by next spring, a recreation of the original mural will replace what’s there now.

Early next week, Geoffrey Steward of Atlanta, Ga. based International Fine Arts Conservation Studios (IFACS) and his associates will travel to Sag Harbor to begin Phase I of the trompe l’oeil restoration process at the church by looking beneath the layers of paint for evidence of the original mural.

Steward doesn’t have a lot to go on at this point — just two black and white photos of the trompe l’oeil, one from 1899 and one that was taken pre-1890.

An earlier incarnation of the mural, circa 1890s.

An earlier incarnation of the mural, circa 1890s.

“The original work is a lot more detailed than the current scheme,” says Steward who will take boring samples of the wall. “We want to find the correct colors and the dimensions of these elements so we can document and replicate it.”

“We will remove some of the current scheme. In this sort of timber framed construction, there’s a fair amount of movement which tends to loosen the plaster,” explains Steward who expects the original mural was rendered in shades of gray. “We’ll come and take some exposures and see if we can find it. We haven’t done any substrate examination so we don’t know if any of the original scheme is still there.”

When asked if these sorts of trompe l’oeil treatments are common in the United States, Steward, who will share his team’s findings in a presentation at the church next Wednesday, November 6 at 7 p.m., responds, “Looking at the decorative elements, it’s quite interesting and seems to be more a northeastern treatment. I haven’t seen too many examples of these trompe l’oeil here. There is a lot of trompe l’oeil in Europe but to see it in an apse like this is unusual.”

While it seems a shame that so many subsequent versions were painted over the original mural, Steward notes that as buildings age, it becomes a necessary evil.

“When the old paint scheme became rather worn, it was repainted and obviously has been a number of times. It was simplified somewhat,” he says. “Now the current scheme is deteriorating and is not to the same standards of the original execution.”

What’s missing in this current incarnation, he notes, are the touches that make trompe l’oeil so effective.

“It’s all done through perspective and drawing,” he says. “Shadows are done as if light is falling through a window to give a three-dimensional effect — turning a flat wall into a curved space.”

This initial phase of the project will cost $4,500 which a member of the congregation has agreed to underwrite. Phase 2 of the plan will be the actual restoration of the 35 foot by 25 foot mural for around $45,000. Four members of the congregation have already given $40,000 toward the project. The work would begin around Easter and be completed in May in time for the 170th anniversary celebration of the church.

Before that can happen, however, Steward has to get a better sense of what’s left of the original mural.

“A lot of it is sorting out the various elements,” says Steward. “Even a small amount will give us enough color detail to extrapolate the rest of the palette. We want it to be graphically correct and it really depends on what we find. If we can take some tracings, we can save time by reproducing some stencils in the studio. We won’t know until we find out what’s remaining.”

While its too early to say exactly how the restoration will proceed (that will come after Steward and his team make their assessment next week) he is already formulating a possible methodology.

“I’m thinking we’ll put a canvas over the whole area and apply the new tromp l’oeil on the canvas,” he says. “That will provide a far more stable background which will prevent cracking and paint loss over the time.”

“Once we have recreated the apse it will provide a far more effective trompe l’oeil effect,” he adds.

The idea for this restoration came from church members Nancy Cory and her late husband David, an avid historian who died late in 2010 and probably knew more about the Old Whalers’ Church than anyone. In the fall of 2007, the Corys traveled to Provincetown, Mass. where they visited the Unitarian Universalist meeting house.

“We saw this church that seemed to be of the same era as the Old Whalers’ Church and like good tourists went in to take look,” explains Cory. “Once we were inside, Dave went one direction and I went another. It was all trompe l’oeil. It was beautiful and so perfectly done that when you went up to look at a piece of woodwork on the wall, you’d bump your head because you couldn’t absorb the perspective fast enough.”

“We were just amazed at it,” adds Cory.

Upon their return to Sag Harbor, the Corys shared photos of the church with fellow members of the Old Whalers’ historical committee and learned about Steward’s restoration firm.

“We were in the lengthy process of restoring the sanctuary,” recalls Cory. “We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have our mural restored?’”

In April 2008, Steward visited the Old Whalers’ Church to talk about the restoration process. While there was great interest at the time, there was no money for the restoration, so his name was filed away for future reference.

“This year we finished all the other work in the sanctuary and decided it was again time to look into having the trompe l’oeil restored,” says Cory.

And now, the time (and the funding) have arrived. When asked how her husband would feel about the restoration, Cory responds, “I think he would’ve been thrilled. It would be the culmination of the restoration of the sanctuary we’ve been working on for years.”

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