Courthouse Murals Restored

Progress Report on the Cleanup After Electrical Fire

Mural Room restoration
Paul Wellman

After an attic electrical fire at the Santa Barbara Courthouse on January 5 filled the mural room with smoke, the art on the walls was covered with an acidic layer of smoky residue. On Friday, July 16, county architect Robert Ooley and chief conservator Patty West led a presentation for courthouse docents on the progress of the cleaning and restoration of the murals.

When the incident occurred in January, Ooley and West conducted an initial investigation into the condition of the panels that led to a full-scale conservation project, rather than what Ooley termed “just a call to Servicemaster and then a mop of the floor.”

Patty West discusses Santa Barbara Courthouse mural room post-fire/smoke damage restoration on July 15, 2010.
Paul Wellman

Patty West then took over the presentation, introducing her teams of restorers, who were positioned around the room on the scaffolding, working the whole time. West said that upon examination the murals were determined to be “oil paint on fine but inexpensive linen cloth, and with no varnish ever applied.”

“Most of it is in fact house paint,” she said, gesturing with both hands toward the giant mural, which was created by artist Dan Sayer Groesbeck in order to tell the story of Santa Barbara. West, whose South Coast Fine Arts Conservation Center (SCFACC) has undertaken the four-month, $450,000 project, told those assembled that the absence of a protective coating over the paint was “both good news and bad news.”

“Bad news,” she said, “because the paint is exposed, and therefore particularly vulnerable to damage, and good news because a varnish, if applied too early after the initial painting is finished, can mute the colors and obscure the contrasts in the original work.”

Mural Room restoration
Paul Wellman

West went on to say that the modular painting system designed by SCFACC for this project would balance the pH solution of the paint in order to stabilize it, and that it was this delicate work that required the services of trained conservators.

The next step in the process will be to deal with the places where the muslin painting surface has begun to crack and peel away from the wall underneath. West was optimistic about the restoration project, saying that so far it is “going well.” She did caution those present that in the future, flash photography would be prohibited in the mural room, as the flash exposure also tends to damage the vulnerable surfaces.


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