Returning the Grandeur to the Historic American Theatre

By Heidi Gruenke Emery - Vice President of Conrad Schmitt Studios
Published in "inLeague" newsletter of the League of Historic American Theatres

When patrons enter a restored historic theatre and view the completed interior decoration for the first time, they are often astonished at the elaborate detailing and artwork, the multiple colors, the gilding and glazing that they see. How did the restorers return the colors, materials and designs that in many cases were lost from the walls and ceilings long ago?

We can rest assured that prospective supporters for the restoration of such a theatre wondered the same thing on the front end of the project as they considered dedicating their resources to a monumental effort to revive a tarnished, Cinderella of a theatre. To captivate them, they needed someone to paint the picture of the grandeur to come.

And why such grandeur, anyway, such architectural excess, such decorative indulgence? George L. Rapp, who with his brother Cornelius W. designed more than 400 theatre palaces, explained it best in theatre enthusiasts’ favorite quotation:

Watch the eyes of a child as it enters the portals of our great theatres and treads the pathway into fairyland. Watch the bright light in the eyes of the tired shopgirl who hurries noiselessly over carpets and sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted the hearts of queens. See the toil-worn father whose dreams have never come true, and look inside his heart as he finds strength and rest within the theatre. There you have the answer to why motion picture theatres are so palatial. Here is a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons. The wealthy rub elbows with the poor – and are better for this contact.  Do not wonder, then, at the touches of Italian Renaissance, executed in glazed polychrome terra cotta, or at the lobbies and foyers adorned with replicas of precious masterpieces of another world . . . It is richness unabashed, but richness with a reason.
-    George L. Rapp, Rapp & Rapp Architects, 1925

So it is good to remind others and ourselves along the way that the historic theatre is much more than a monument to the past; it is a truly inspiring entertainment venue for the present. It is never a question of whether or not to restore, only a question of how to accomplish the feat.

The most dramatic and useful way to demonstrate the potential of a theatre restoration project is visually. Artists’ renderings are one effective tool for sharing the vision. Even more valuable is the actual restoration of a section of the theatre of restoration with its rightfully rich color and shine bringing the ornate surfaces back to life. Creating such a decorative sample requires an investigation of the historic finishes. The subsequent sample, or “mock-up”, illustrates the fully realized results of the investigation with all the paints, glazes, metal leaf and other decorative finishes that make historic theatre decoration so magnificent. It is a way to show rather than tell how powerful the results of the restoration will be.

Although the results of a restoration appear almost magical, the investigation of a theatre’s original appearance is something of a science, an archaeological process. Many theatres have had numerous renovations over the years, and the original decoration can be buried under layers of paint and dirt, if not under entirely new surfaces such as false ceilings and drywall. Every restoration is unique, and procedures are tailored to the individual project, its goals and budgetary considerations. But in each case, it is important that the investigation is conducted by a Studio well-versed in conservation practices. The following will provide a general overview of the procedures used to investigate and return historic finishes when a faithful restoration is desired.

Historic Research
One of the first places to begin an investigation into a historic decorative scheme is with historic research. This includes searching for old photographs, newspaper articles, records of past work in the space, and anything else that might reveal clues as to the past decorative schemes. For instance, news stories from the opening of the theatre frequently contain detailed descriptions of the interior decoration. Vintage photographs often help to reveal past décor and can identify areas of contrast and reflective surfaces.

Historic Finishes Analysis
The essential tool for guiding an authentic decorative restoration is an investigation, analysis and documentation of the historic finishes, which include the current and past paints, glazes, wallcoverings, varnishes and so on. The historic finishes analysis produces a permanent record of the designs, colors, materials and techniques that were originally used on the walls, ceilings, columns and other interior architectural elements of the space.

Conditions Survey
The onsite investigation begins with a survey of the existing conditions. Areas of loss are recorded and previous materials are identified if possible with the naked eye. Paint failure and possible causes are noted, such as incompatible paints, water damage, inadequate surface preparation and interior climate issues. Other negative conditions such as oil migration within the paint layers, infiltration of dirt into surfaces and residue from inappropriate cleaning campaigns are also considered during the initial survey. The effects of aging and sunlight (where applicable) are also taken into consideration. Virtually all tints are vulnerable to color deterioration, some to a greater degree than others.

The next steps involve exposing the original or most significant decorative paint layer, then capturing the design elements and analyzing the types, colors and application techniques for the various finishes.  For most theatres, a return to the original decoration will be favored. However, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) guidelines do instruct that decoration should be restored to the building’s most significant time period, which may or may not be the time of the original decoration.

To uncover the original designs, exposure “windows” are created in sections large enough to determine the frequency of repetition and spacing of designs, as well as the manner of design applications in unique areas such as corners and centers. A variety of chemical and physical means are used to remove the non-original layers of paint one by one. The mildest solvent that is effective is employed, along with various chemical and mechanical techniques, to achieve a clear reading of each design.

Design Analysis
Tracings of the decorative designs are made on clear mylar and compiled into a comprehensive catalog. The conservator also interprets the sequence of stencil applications and the techniques used to apply the designs, based on his or her expertise in historic to modern techniques, styles and finishes. The application of translucent glazes or opaque highlights are noted. Overall and detailed photographs are also taken throughout the investigation.

Color Analysis
The initial color analysis begins onsite with direct observation and the use of a field microscope or loupe.  For more in-depth analysis, core samples of representative paint layers may be taken from the site and analyzed in the laboratory. The mounted samples are sliced on a bias to reveal the “chromochronology” – all of the paint strata and surface coatings in the order in which they were applied. The dirt layers between paint strata, also visible under the microscope, help identify which layers belong to a single decorative scheme and can tell relatively how long a scheme endured before repainting. Studying samples microscopically reveals truer paint color, beneath the surface discoloration. Fully documenting the sequence of paint adds cost, but the record is useful for future work and is strongly recommended by the NTHP for historic preservation projects.

The colors from the core sample and the exposure window are matched to the Munsell System of universal color standards. The Munsell codes include three numbers representing hue, value and chroma, for precise visual identification. Other analytic systems can be used in conjunction with Munsell to provide spectral data for colors as well. The final palette for many theatres includes dozens of colors.

Media and Compatibility Analysis
Based on microscopic observation, chemical tests and other forms of analysis, the composition of the various paint layers can be analyzed. This is particularly important when incompatibilities identified in the initial survey are causing paint failures or delamination. If paint defects or possible adverse reactions among coatings or cleaning chemicals are suspected, advanced chemical analysis (such as FTIR and SEM) can be undertaken to identify all substances, including any possible byproducts from chemical reaction. Hazardous paint components, such as lead, can also be identified during the media analysis.

The comprehensive results from the investigation and analysis of the historic finishes are compiled and bound into a permanent record of the original decorative painting scheme and a guide for the decorative restoration. Copies are held by the owner, the local historical society, and the studio.

The Decorative Sample
After the designs, colors and types of finishes have been identified and documented, the re-creation begins. Based on the findings, a sample area of the restored decoration is created. The typical decorative sample is an interior section of wall and ceiling, approximately 18 feet wide, representing the proposed decoration across the typical architectural details of the space, such as columns, capitals, friezes and vaults. Numerous small samples in separate areas can replace or supplement the major sample as the particular project dictates.

In come cases, particularly when the original decorative painting is in good condition, the artwork is retained rather than repainted.  This approach is referred to as “conservation” rather than “restoration.” A range of actions including stabilization, consolidation, cleaning, infill painting to restore lost design elements, exposing original designs with the goal of retaining them, and applying protective coatings can be part of a comprehensive conservation program. A primary focus of all intervention of a conservation program is the reversibility of all treatments for posterity.

Whether a conservation or a restoration, the sample has extraordinary power to unite all of the divergent ideas and questions of a project into a singular vision. Often, the unveiling of the decorative sample is when the project becomes an artistic or spiritual enrichment that seems imperative. Some people are emotionally moved and at times step forward with offers of sizeable donations.  Inevitably, people are inspired.

The sample is often the first, exciting glimpse of the original decorative painting scheme, but there are also more practical reasons for creating samples. They illustrate the quality, taste and expertise the artists will bring to the project.  As an exact representation of the scheme, samples also expedite the entire restoration process by allowing design decisions regarding flooring, fabrics and other elements to be made early on. That, in turn, allows for more accurate project pricing, as the scope of work and the required materials have been established.

But for most projects, the greatest value of the sample is its power to generate enthusiasm and support for the project. The importance of making a restoration happen can be deliberated for a day, a month, or a decade.  But when an investigation of the historic finishes is undertaken and a decorative sample created, seeing is believing, and the momentum beings.

Heidi Gruenke Emery is Vice President of Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc. in New Berlin, WI.  (

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