We encourage working with your local historical society in documenting walls in your home that have murals. These gems are disappearing across New England.
Early wall murals do not appeal to everyone, but rather than over paint, paper over, plaster over or remove them, it is possible to cover them using an archivally acceptable procedure.
Untempered ¼″ thick 4′x8′ masonite is available or can be ordered from local contractor supply houses for $25/sheet. This untempered masonite does not have the oils and resins in it that tempered masonite and wall board have. These oils and resins will react with the historic painted surface. Cut masonite to fit snugly within the moldings of the room so it basically is a liner for the room, much the same as dry walling the room.
After cutting the pieces, lightly sand the edges to get rid of any furry roughness then prime BOTH sides with at least 1 coat of either Liquitex Gesso (available from an artist supply store) or a good quality 100% acrylic latex primer sealer paint (available from your local paint dealer). Let the painted surfaces cure (reach their optimum hardness) for a minimum of 24 hours up to a week. During this curing process the acrylic gives off its gases.
Using a clear adhesive silicone caulk at the top and bottom edges of the wall, “hang” the masonite. When the two pieces of masonite are in place next to each other the vertical seams can be filled with elastic water based caulk (non-silicone or paintable). Immediately clean up the seam with a damp cloth. This elastic caulk will fill the seam of the two pieces of masonite butted together. It doesn’t actually dry and will remain flexible so the seam will not crack. If you use drywall paste the seam will crack. It may be necessary to use a nail at the seam of long spans to hold back buckling. Try and strategically place the nail so it doesn’t interfere with decoration underneath.
The butted masonite seams should be immediately wiped down with a damp cloth. If you use paintable elastic caulk (readily available at the local paint store) be sure it does not have silicone in it. Taping the seam would leave a bulge because the edges of the masonite are not tapered. Wall treatment can proceed from here.
The use of 100% acrylic primer sealer allows a great bonding surface for either paint or wallpaper. It has been suggested that a window could be cut in the masonite to visibly document the decorated wall underneath. This obviously is up to the homeowner and contractor but certainly would provide visual verification to the curious.
This relatively inexpensive procedure leaves the wall murals for the next owners to enjoy if they so choose. By doing this, the history and their historical value to the town will be left intact. The fact that the walls are documented in the library of the Rufus Porter Museum will allow future generations to enjoy them if desired. Removal of the walls, even if reinstalled into another house, will leave them in jeopardy if the next owner dislikes them. With an insecure future, the murals will be subject to loss.
The early paints used are primarily water/glue based and subject to resolulizing when in contact with water. Techniques for removing wallpaper and plaster are best left to professional restorers so the original paint is left intact. We suggest owners learn what is involved in this, and study other restored murals so the end result is pleasing to them. Much damage has occurred in the past from inappropriate techniques and heavy over painting. Any new paint application diminishes the value of the wall murals. The Museum can supply owners with some references upon inquiry, but cannot be held responsible in any way with the activities, procedures and results.
We promote living with the murals that are original as much as possible, as no matter how good the restoration, it can never measure up to original paint. To see the original color and brush work adds greatly to the value and study of the techniques. Each mural was individually designed by Rufus Porter School artisans to fit the space of the house, and Porter was an acknowledged genius at this. The original placement in the house is important to the value of the artwork and once the walls are removed, they lose their significance to their historical placement.
If a house is to be demolished, it is wonderful to see the murals saved and preserved elsewhere. However, loss may easily occur when placed in storage. If they are stabilized and stored, every time they are moved to put on display they are subject to environmental conditions—light, humidity and people traffic. This constant movement causes cracking with each move, as is the case with the Westwood walls. When the condition of the paint on the walls is original (no inpainting, overpainting or restoration), and the structural integrity of the walls is sound, there is a market for these. There are experienced professionals who can remove the walls and support the edges with a frame. Once the plaster walls are removed, the structural integrity of the walls is subject to additional damage during storage and reinstallation. Thus, we discourage any unnecessary removal of walls from the original setting. Every owner becomes a caretaker for the next generation to enjoy this incredible heritage which they own.
The three houses with murals presently in Bridgton were discovered under plaster or wall paper since Jean Lipman’s book Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer was published in 1970. Her book renewed appreciation for his painting by art lovers nationwide, and helped increase interest and value in his work. Nine other houses with murals known in the Bridgton area have been lost, typical of the rapid pace with which this heritage is disappearing. Unless the value of having these murals in their original setting is respected and appreciated, it will not be long before this 19th century historic landscape school of painting will disappear.
Information regarding preservation easements:
Historic New England's Preservation Easement Program www.historicnewengland.org | 617. 994. 6642 | firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Hampshire Preservation Alliance www.nhpreservation.org | 603. 224. 2281 |