Saving the Ceiling

By Bruce Nolan
Published in "Times Picayune"

The 19th-century paintings that adorn the plaster ceiling of St. Louis Cathedral began peeling away earlier this year. Today, a patient, painstaking restoration is underway to secure and restore the giant murals. 

Here’s how it’s done.

To fill the void left behind the fallen piece of ceiling, the area is replastered and later repainted, using photographs as references, to match the original artwork.

Several areas of the ceiling are sagging and the plaster is pulling away from its supporting lathe. Two techniques are being used to repair these areas:

Fastening from below - Plaster washers are screwed through the plaster into the joists above.

Securing from above - Plaster washers aren’t enough to hold up the ceiling, so a hole is drilled through the lathe and adhesive is injected into the gap between the lathe and the sagging plaster ceiling, holding the two sections together.

Retouch - Sections of faded artwork are highlighted and given more detail; art that was retouched decades ago is repainted to match the style of the original art.

Cathedral project is a work of art
On a towering scaffold in St. Louis Cathedral, David Andrews, a young, soft-spoken artist from Milwaukee, spends an afternoon touching up a king’s brocaded cloak painted on the plaster ceiling.

From the floor nearly 70 feet below, the fine-tipped brush in Andrews’ hand is barely visible, never mind the detail lavished on the monarch’s clothing, his profile, his beard.
But that’s the degree of attention the Archdiocese of New Orleans is devoting to restoring several paintings on the ceiling of the 144-year-old cathedral, a five-month job estimated at $300,000.

The project was born like many repair jobs: with a crash in the night.

With the cathedral locked and empty, a 4-by-6 foot section of aged, inch-thick plaster broke free the night of March 6 and fell 67 feet to the floor near the altar.

The accident tore a ragged patch from a mural representing Christ as the Paschal lamb, painted in 1872 by Erasmus Humbrecht, a young Alsatian artist who filled the cathedral with religious art on his first major American job.

Inspectors called in by the archdiocese quickly found other portions of the 123-year-old mural sagging ominously.

Moreover, there was evidence elsewhere in the mural of wildly uneven restorations after earlier plaster damage: a substitute lion that looked more Disney than Humbrecht, a man’s profile that seemed to belong on a Mardi Gras float and an unknown restorer’s attempt at a hand that vaguely resembled a baseball mitt.

Enter Conrad Schmitt Studio, decorative painters and plasterers from New Berlin, Wis., specializing in restoring churches and grand old theaters.

Their mission: to restore the damaged plaster work, the mural and the surrounding area.

Inevitably, the job grew.

Given the effort and inconvenience required in the mural repair, archdiocesan officials have decided to do as much as possible all at once, commissioning repairs to plaster work and to other Humbrecht murals along the cathedral’s ceiling all the way to the rear wall.

Even as scaffolding behind the altar comes down this week, more scaffolding will be erected near the cathedral’s choir loft, signaling the next stage of the work.

All through June, Andrews and two other Conrad Schmitt artists, Charles Dwyer and Mel Hulse, spent much of their time within arm’s reach of the ceiling at the front of the church, the pooled heat up there stirred by an ordinary box fan droning amid their buckets of paints and solvents on the scaffold’s decking.

Much of their initial work took place in the attic, where Hulse and a team of plasterers secured the sagging plaster from above.

After that, Hulse and Dwyer spent weeks cleaning the upper walls and ceiling with solvents and detergents, then restoring decorative floral work around the Humbrecht mural.

The mural itself has been Andrews’ focus.

Part of that job was to repaint the replastered patch, using old photos as a guide and trying to be as faithful as possible to Humbrecht’s style, Andrews said.

But the entire mural has gotten their attention.

The general strategy has been to remove years of grime, candle soot and earlier restorations, exposing as much of the Humbrecht original as they could, Andrews said.

That done, the artists covered Humbrecht’s work with a dissolvable varnish and made their restorations on top of that. The goal: to protect the original and signal to future restorers which work was theirs and which Humbrecht’s.

Part of the new work has been simply retouching details in the main figures, working on the king’s cloak, for instance.

In a few other areas, Andrews’ work will be more evident from the floor; such as in the painting over the plaster patch and the replacing of the faulty hand and substandard lion.
The three artists gained their skills from formal training or experience.

Hulse, the oldest of the trio, helped in his company’s restoration of St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street four years ago.

Dwyer, who’s in his thirties, and Andrews, 26, are much younger, both university-trained artists who show their work in galleries around Milwaukee on their occasional visits home.
In their journeys from job to job, they see a range of talent on walls and ceilings, from originals by skilled journeymen artists to botched restorations by well-meaning amateurs, “nuns, or maybe whoever was available who had some degree of talent,” Dwyer said.

Their assessment of Humbrecht, their 19th century predecessor on the scaffold, is generous and neutral.

“I’d say it’s good to average,” Dwyer said.  “It was good for its time.”

Records show that Humbrecht was 23 when he undertook the mural as part of a series of paintings for the cathedral, then undergoing its first facelift 21 years after construction.

Humbrecht was Swiss-trained, new to America and lucky.  Hardly a year off the boat, he found a wife and a major commission in the most important church in the city.

Humbrecht’s works fill the cathedral; his biggest is the painting of St. Louis announcing the Seventh Crusade, a 40-foot scene that dominates the cathedral’s back wall.

His bill, according to archdiocesan records: $1,950, which included $250 for the ceiling mural in the sanctuary, which he called “The Sacrifice of the Divine Lamb.”

Humbrecht also painted murals on the ceiling of Holy Trinity Church in New Orleans; they were destroyed or covered during repairs after Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

Although he settled in New Orleans, Humbrecht filled church ceilings throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys with madonnas, saints and infant Jesuses.

Twenty years after his first job, he managed another major renovation of St. Louis Cathedral.  He refreshed his original work, added more paintings and altered the color scheme of the interior in 1891 and 1892.

Humbrecht died in Cincinnati in 1901, leaving a wife and three children to bury him in St. Roch Cemetery No. 1.  A great-granddaughter still lives in New Orleans.

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