Southwest corner of the porch showing Grant Wood’s stylized vines and woodland animals after conservation.| Courtesy of Brucemore
By Maura Pilcher
Barbara Douglas wanted a swimming pool. While at boarding school, she received a letter from her mother telling her a surprise that began with a “p” was waiting for her. Barbara anxiously returned home expecting to find her new swimming pool but found none. When she inquired after the pool, her mother, Irene, told Barbara the surprise was waiting in her bedroom.
|Southwest corner of the porch showing Grant Wood’s stylized vines and
woodland animals after conservation.| Courtesy of Brucemore
Young Barbara lived at Brucemore, a 19th-century mansion in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 1925 her mother, Irene Douglas, commissioned local artist Grant Wood to design and install a mural in Barbara’s sleeping porch at the cost of $125. Five years later, Wood would paint American Gothic,
one of the most recognized portraits in the world. Wood’s mural at Brucemore is one of the few examples of his work still in its original setting and available to the public. In 2013, following decades of documenting and planning, Brucemore undertook a nine-month project to conserve the mural for future generations.
|Detail photo of the paint finishes. Colors had blanched from sun
exposure. Paint washes and abrasive cleaning had muted otherwise vibrant
colors.|Courtesy of Brucemore (Photo 1)
Cedar Rapids, where Grant Wood worked and taught for much of his life, is home to a unique collection of his masterworks, as well as a large assortment of architectural details designed by the regional artist. Wood has been credited with the design and installation of fireplace screens, leaded-glass windows, murals, and more throughout the community. Located in private homes, few of these are available for the public to see.
The sleeping porch is located off of a second-floor bedroom in the Brucemore mansion. Wood coated the masonry walls of the sleeping porch in a plaster relief, crafting stylized woodland animals playfully situated on vines climbing the walls. The plaster was then coated with multiple layers of paint washes to decorate the surface texture and ornament. This may not be the only work of this kind in the world, but research has proven it to be exceedingly rare. Today, the mural is by far the most valuable work of art in the Brucemore collection.
Brucemore staff had already taken several measures to ensure the preservation of the sleeping porch, including enclosing the porch in the early 1980s, conducting an initial conservation assessment in 1996, repointing the exterior masonry wall in 2008, and repairing the roof deck above the porch in 2012.
|Detail photo of cleaned area. The field area has been stabilized and
layers of dirt, soot, and stains have been removed. | Courtesy of
Brucemore (Photo 2)
In 2013 Tony Kartsonas of Historic Surfaces LLC was hired to conserve the sleeping porch mural. Based out of Milwaukee, Wis., Tony Kartsonas worked with his wife and fellow conservator, Mata, and brought along their two children to live on the estate during the project. Other experts joined the team throughout the process, including fellow conservation technician Susan Goione Buchholz (Keenesburg, Colo.), conservation scientist Richard Wolbers (Winterthur/University of Delaware), architectural engineer Mark Nussbaum (Architectural Consulting Engineers, Oak Park, Ill.), and Elizabeth Louden and Karen Hughes of the 3-D laser scanning firm, CARMA (Lubbock, Tex.).
In cooperation with Richard Wolbers, a leader in the field of conservation, the team made several discoveries regarding the condition of the mural, which guided the proposed treatment (Figures below 1-5 left to right, click on the image for details):
- Cyclic wetting and drying over the years of exposure to the elements had allowed some re-crystallization of the gypsum into monoclinic crystals (Figure 1). This may have been a fortuitous accident that helped secure some of the paint.
- The painted finishes were generally in poor condition. Exposure to the elements had slowly oxidized the paint, degraded the paint surface, and created a loss of the paint binder, some of which had saturated into the substrate (Figures 2 and 3). The washed-out effect on the colored finishes best illustrated this phenomenon. The exposure had also degraded and tarnished the metallic paint finishes to the point where most of these appeared black (Figure 4).
- Most of the “raised” ornament appeared to be in fair condition; however testing revealed that a moderate amount of the adhered elements were slightly loose.
| Mata Kartsonas (Historic Surfaces LLC) cleans a portion of the west wall. | Courtesy of Brucemore (Photo 3)
Over the decades, the mural had been abrasively scrubbed “clean” and varnished to protect the mural from the elements. In some areas, the scrubbing had exposed bare plaster while the varnish yellowed the entire mural over time. The greatest challenge of the project was determining how to remove a later, unstable paint without damaging the original finishes which had become powdery and friable. Conservators could not clean these finishes without first stabilizing or consolidating them. To do so, conservators had to use a consolidant that would still allow moisture to transmit through the plaster and masonry substrate. Many solutions trap moisture causing the plaster and brick to spall or otherwise deteriorate (think latex paint on a stone wall).
Historic Surfaces LLC conservators dry cleaned the surface with vacuums and sponges. Then, utilizing cutting-edge research, they stabilized the paint with a polyacrylate solution that enabled them to remove the surface dirt, soot, and stains (Photos 3). Following the cleaning, the plaster was further stabilized and only minor losses were painted in since the intent was to conserve rather than restore.
Watch the video below to see conservators Tony Kartsonas and Richard Wolbers describe the process.
The final result was a mural with deeper, richer colors than had been seen in the past several decades. Many of Grant Wood’s vibrant colors have been restored and the plaster field secured.
While still not quite as significant as Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic
, the conservation of the sleeping porch revealed multiple surprises and solidified the belief that this is a unique piece of Wood’s work:
- The plaster strokes are reminiscent of the exterior walls of a cottage where Wood had spent time during his numerous trips to France. He appreciated the rough texture he saw during his travels and applied it to rooms in to the Grant Wood Home and Studio (also located in Cedar Rapids and part of the National Trust’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios consortium) as well as the sleeping porch.
- The animals and rosettes were not sculpted directly on the wall as previously thought. Instead, Wood modeled them in plaster of Paris and then attached them to the wall.
- Wood’s ability to successfully adhere plaster directly to brick in such a way that it has endured over 90 years is a feat that centuries of artists have struggled to achieve.
The decorated sleeping porch once provided a magical, enchanting setting for a young girl during the summer months. Today, it is a national treasure that further illustrates Grant Wood’s diversity and genius as an artist and craftsman. And there’s more to this happy ending—Barbara eventually received her swimming pool and the community inherited a work of art.
Maura Pilcher is assistant director of Brucemore, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She holds a master of science in historic preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is active in Iowa’s preservation initiatives.#Brucemore #HistoricSites #conservation