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How Architectural Restoration Bridges Time and Space | Conservation Lab

As architectural conservators peel back layers of paint, they unlock layers of meaning.

In art institutions across the globe, time machines and investigation rooms exist behind closed doors. Dusty artworks go in and come out looking centuries younger; artists’ secrets are brought to light; and hidden, unfinished images emerge from behind famous compositions. Every week, we'll peek beneath the microscope and zoom in on the art of preservation, where art meets science and just a little bit of magic: this is Conservation Lab.

Building repair isn’t just about appearances; it’s about rekindling lost feelings. “Even though I’m a bricks and mortar guy, and deal with the physical fabric of buildings, it’s really how art and architecture affects communities that makes it all worthwhile,” comments Jeff Greene, the president and founder of EverGreene, a design studio based in New York that specializes in the restoration of interiors. Since 1978, the company has undertaken countless projects, breathing new life into decaying theatrical venues, sacred spaces, government buildings, and other institutions.

In cases of extreme deterioration, like Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, the transformation is a dramatic performance in and of itself. The 3,200-seat venue, built in 1929 in the neighborhood of Flatbush, was closed in 1977 and neglected for four decades. In 2015, following a two-year restoration, the space came alive again, hosting the likes of Diana Ross and Björk, and reclaiming its place as the borough’s largest indoor theater. The auditorium’s ornamental plaster was restored, decorative statues repaired, and ceilings gilded and glazed. Piece by piece, the interiors regained their former splendor, making those years of disrepair seem like a bad dream the space finally awoke from.

The Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, before and after restoration.

“We’re often brought on early in the process to do the forensic analysis, to research what was there and what it looked like. This is mainly material analysis: looking at paint chips under the microscope, and trying to find out what the pathologies of the building were,” explains Greene. In the case of the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, archival photos provided clues to the building’s Italian Renaissance style beginnings in the 1920s. After a fire in the 60s and a subsequent renovation that stripped the space of any ornament, those photos seemed likely to be the only sources available to guide the restoration, until on-site investigations uncovered charred fragments of the decor inside the wall cavity. These unbelievable finds allowed EverGreene to create molds, gather clues about original colors, and replicate the original design. “We recreated this entire world,” concludes Greene.

From left to right, the progression of uncovered, historic ornament from the Ohio Theatre, to newly created casts.

At left, work in progress at the Ohio Theatre, and completed restoration at right.

Oftentimes, clients need to make decisions about which world, exactly, they’re looking to recreate. “Sometimes there are multiple patterns,” explains Greene. “We create exposure windows, stripping back one layer of paint at a time. The dirt layer between paint layers gives you an idea of how long it was exposed. There could have been four or five decorative themes—so you have to decide which one to go back to.”

Restoration in progress at The Sherry-Netherland hotel in New York City

To someone like Greene, who firmly believes that buildings can move people, none of these decisions should be taken lightly. “It all depends on how the space is being interpreted—how the building will be read and how it will be used. Once it’s done, it’s part of the history and the fabric of what’s there.”

Filling in the gaps: work in progress on WPA murals created in 1936 at the Harlem Hospital.

Work in progress on the Empire State Building’s ceiling murals.

Completed restoration of Empire State Building lobby.

To see more of EverGreene’s work, visit their website.

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