The Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor, a National Historic Landmark, is going to oversee a restoration of the historic wall painting behind the pulpit thanks to donations from its congregation just in time for its 170th anniversary celebration in May.
The Rev. Mark Phillips, the church pastor, said the trompe l'oeil mural, part of the original 1844 church design, will be restored to a more closely historical representation of the original by International Fine Art Conservation Studios of Atlanta, Ga.
"At first glance, there appears to be a curved apse with classical columns framed in an Egyptian-style border behind the pulpit area. Closer inspection reveals that this is an optical illusion painted on a flat wall, a type of decoration known as trompe l’oeil, a French term meaning 'trick the eye,'" according to a history of the church prepared by the late David Corey.
The church's architect, Minard Lafever had planned to include an actual curved apse behind the pulpit, but when the project went over budget — the estimated price was $10,000, but it ended up costing $17,000, Corey's report states — he may have decided to go with the illusion instead of the real deal.
In 1871, the old high-box pulpit was eliminated and the mural was repainted by E. B. Hill. In 1886, Charles S. Hedges repainted it again. By 1902, the mural was replaced with a different wall decoration; three rectangular panels with Greek borders. Just 7 years later, the trompe l’oeil was restored by G.C. Callmander of Brooklyn, for $374.
"It has long been the hope and dream of many
members of Old Whalers congregation that the wall would someday be restored to
its earlier appearance," the statement said. Based on black and white photos, the mural at the turn of the century was of better quality than the one done in 1909.
The 35-by-25-foot sanctuary wall and the trompe l’oeil remain “distressed,” according to the church.
In 2008, Geoffrey Steward, principal and CEO of International Fine Arts Conservation Studios, which has done major restoration work at historic buildings, visited the church. Congregants Nancy and the late David Cory, had visited the restoration of an extensive trompe l’oeil done at the Unitarian-Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown, Mass., and the Old Whalers historic building committee looked into having the studio restore the mural in Sag Harbor.
Fundraising was approved, but never moved forward, until now.
A two-phase restoration is planned, starting with a detailed inspection of the wall and mural that involves drilling into the wall to research the color palette used originally. The first phase will start the week of Nov. 4. The cost is $4,500, which has been covered by a member of the congregation, according to the pastor.
Steward and his associates will make a presentation about the restoration on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. in the sanctuary. The public is invited.
The second phase, which will require fundraising, is restoring the mural to its pre-1890 appearance, and is expected to begin after Easter in April 2014. Much of the $45,000 cost has already been covered, thanks to four members of the congregation who donated $40,000.
The church has undergone major work over the past 20 years, including restoration of the coffered ceiling in 1995, replacing of the windows, and re-plastering and painting the other sanctuary walls and those in the narthex. A grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy the gutters were replaced.