Housecleaning National Treasures

Housecleaning National Treasures

July 18, 2002


As shocking as it may be, it seems that at least 13 people in the past 65 years have aimed spitballs at the fathers of our country.

Or perhaps it was one person with 13 spitballs.

In either case, the aim was true, and the spitballs “glommed” onto the lacquer finish of a famous oil-on-canvas mural that depicts the 28 signers of the Declaration of Independence as John Hancock presented the completed document.

When the mural was recently removed from the rotunda of the National Archives building at 7th and Constitution Avenues to be cleaned, “One of the bets the National Archives people had was how many spitballs we would find,” said Great Falls art conservator David Olin, whose firm was selected to clean the mural.

“There were spitballs, and all kinds of things on there. I think we only really found about 13 — big wads of dried-up paint stuck to the surface,” Olin said.

“They don’t allow people in there with sodas or straws; I don’t know how they did it. You could see them when you were just standing and looking [at the murals].

OLIN AND HIS STAFF removed the spitballs, along with other extraneous glop from the painting’s surface: dust, dirt, and “ambient grime” that accumulated in the 65 years since the paintings by Barry Faulkner were hung.

Olin Conservation, Inc., in Great Falls won a $2.4 million, two-year contract to remove, refurbish, and replace both the Declaration of Independence mural and a similar one that shows completion of the United States Constitution.

“They have undergone two previous attempts at restoration, but [were] never fully conserved like they are now,” said Olin.

“There have been noticeable buckles and distortions to the canvas, but no one has been really sure how to deal with them,” he said.

“In some places, the canvas had separated from the deteriorating plaster wall behind it,’ he said.

MOST OF THE PROBLEMS come from the “sizing,” a lining of white lead that binds the canvas to the plaster wall. “Years of moisture in the air make that lining deteriorate,” Olin said. “The sizing reduces the porosity of the canvas. This particular artist had used a lot of it.”

To remove the paintings, which are 13 .5 by 36 feet in size, Olin’s firm designed dual spools made of aluminum that are 16 feet tall. They were placed on a monorail track designed to moved along the curvature of the walls in the rotunda at an even pace as the canvas was separated from the wall.

“It took about two or three weeks,” Olin said. “Everybody had assumed it would take a lot longer.

In his previous experience removing murals, Olin found he had to chisel part of the wall away with the canvas, then come back and remove the fragments of the wall later, he said.

But with the National Archives murals, he first applied a solution of water and vinegar to the surface of the canvas. “We were able to remove the sizing and leave the majority of the lead behind,” he said. “It should have taken about three months, but it took about three weeks” to remove the mural, he said.

“Once we got the mural off the wall and fixed the problems with the canvas, we removed the surface layers of grime and discolored and deteriorated varnish, as well as past repaints.

“Past restorers had subjectively covered areas with repaint," Olin said.

The National Archives is closed temporarily as it undergoes a $100 million renovation, including cleaning and repairing the two famous murals. They get as many as two million visitors in a year, Olin said. Olin Conservation, which has six employees in Great Falls, will need about two years to complete the work, Olin said. The firm was one of four invited to bid on the job.

“One of the things we did that no one else seemed to recognize is that in putting [the murals] back up on the wall, they will be subject to the same problems with the plaster in the old building,” he said.

“There is incompatibility between the plaster and the canvas.

“We designed an aluminum, honeycomb panel that is fabricated to fit the space these murals go in.

“They will go back on a much more stable aluminum panel” that takes 13 months to build and costs $200,000.

AFTER OLIN REPAIRS tears in the canvas and damaged paint, the murals will be returned “in a fashion where they will stay in good shape,” Olin said.

The two paintings, commissioned in 1934 and completed two years later, are imaginary views of the completion of the two famous documents, the artist’s depiction of what news photographers would capture if they were written today.

Completion is expected in time for Constitution Day in September, 2003, said Olin.