The finished trompe l’oeil at the Old Whalers’ Church. Photo by Michael Heller.
By Annette Hinkle
The Old Whalers’ Church, which dates back to 1844, is a Sag Harbor icon. Even without its massive steeple (lost in the 1938 hurricane) architect Minard Lafever’s imposing edifice still has the power to inspire awe, especially among visitors who glimpse it for the first time.
A rare example of Egyptian revival architecture, in recent years, a number of repairs and restorations have been made inside the building to insure its historic integrity and beauty as well.
Last Sunday at morning service, the Old Whalers’ Church officially unveiled what some consider to be the highlight of those recent restorations—the recreation of the original trompe l’oeil mural which Mr. Lafever designed to grace the massive south wall of the sanctuary. A concert held at 5 p.m. that evening to celebrate the event brought in more than 200 people.
Gone is the cracked, light blue mural which for decades graced the space behind the pulpit. In its place is a professionally rendered scheme completed over the course of the last month by a staff of restoration experts from International Fine Arts Conservation Studios, based in Atlanta, Ga.
Rendered in muted tones of gray and white with subtle shading, the 35-foot-by-25-foot mural implies the presence of a curved apse and Corinthian columns supporting a cofferdam ceiling—a space that doesn’t actually exist, but rather is a “trick of the eye” (or “trompe l’oeil” in French).
With only two black and white photographs to go on—one from 1899 and one that was taken pre-1890, Geoffrey Steward and his associates from IFACS visited Sag Harbor last November to scrape through up to 14 layers of paint and discern the history of the design and color palette of at least six full murals which have graced the wall since the mid-1840s.
When they returned in late May to do the work, the artisans cleaned and primed the plaster wall, affixed a canvas support to it and laid out the trompe l’oeil design using stencils. Finally, they painted the image in its original color washes and applied shading to complete the trompe l’oeil effect.
The new scheme portrays the illusion of depth in a way the well meaning, but inexpertly rendered, earlier mural never did. For church member Nancy Cory, the finished product represents the realization of a long time dream.
“I’m delighted, it’s more beautiful than I ever could have anticipated,” said Mrs. Cory. “It’s much more three dimensional and effective in shading and perspective.”
“It’s so different than what we had,” she added. “I think that’s why the moment to make the change came. People were tired of looking at the mural and noticing the perspective was off. We have such a beautiful building to worship in, why not complete the restoration? It’s more fitting and classier. The whole sanctuary is built for the glory of God. It seemed right to do it.”
In fact, it was Mrs. Cory and her late husband, David, who spearheaded the idea of the mural restoration. Mr. Cory was an avid historian who probably knew more about the Old Whalers’ Church than anyone. In the fall of 2007, the Corys vacationed in Provincetown, Mass. where they visited a church filled with fine examples of trompe l’oeil imagery.
Inspired, they brought the idea—and the name of Mr. Steward’s restoration firm—back to the congregation in Sag Harbor for consideration. Then, the economic downturn of 2008 hit, and the church had to put the project on hold.
But in 2013, the Reverend Mark Phillips and Mrs. Cory revisited the idea of the mural restoration. When Mr. Steward said the price would be $50,000—about the same as it had been in 2008—Rev. Phillips reached out to parishioners for financial support. Within a very short time, church members had pledged the entire amount.
“We have no debt for this project due to 12 anonymous donors,” said Rev. Phillips. “We’ve been very careful not to reveal their names, but the gifts range from very small amounts up to $20,000.”
When asked on Monday what he thinks of the new mural, Rev. Phillips responded, “I think its a great addition and a far improvement over what was there. Even though it’s detailed, I don’t think it’s overdone.”
“I was so impressed by the professionalism of the team here, not only were they greatly skilled at what they did, but they always took time, even if 50 people came in during the day, to come down off the scaffolding and explain what they were doing,” he added. “I felt bad Friday when we said goodbye to them.”
Though David Cory didn’t live to see his dream realized—he died in late 2010—Mrs. Cory is certain he would have approved of the new trompe l’oeil.
“David would have loved it,” said Mrs. Cory. “He would’ve been thrilled to have this project completed.”
“I wish he could have been here,” added Rev. Phillips. “But I like to think yesterday he was smiling down and was happy.”
In addition to the completion of the much anticipated mural restoration, on May 16 the congregation celebrated another major milestone—the building’s 170th anniversary, which, as it turns out, was David Cory’s birthday.