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Damaged treasure: one of the Troy frescos.

1840 Frescos in Troy

By Ann Morrow

 

Downtown Troy is known for many historic treasures. And now another historic artwork can be added to the city’s significance: 1840 buon fresco panels. The panels, painted in authentic Renaissance style, are part of the grand parlor in a Washington Place brownstone currently under restoration. “There are very, very few frescos of that age in the United States,” says fresco artist Cindy Alexander [“In the Classic Style,” April 5]. “They are so important.”

According to Alexander, these rare examples of the neoclassical era in architecture are arguably the oldest frescos in the country—predating even the 1840s frescos in the White House. However, the Washington Place brownstone is not privy to federal government resources, hence the problem: most of them have been damaged by the building’s dereliction. Of the 20-or-so panels that form a soaring coffered ceiling, only about 10 are salvageable. Alexander estimates that a professional restoration would cost over a million dollars.

The coffered parlor is part of a Greek Revival built by U.S. Congressman Joe Pierson. The owner’s affluence, explains Alexander, is evident in the amount of gold leaf in the panels and the use of expensive pigments such as blue, which is made from lapis lazuli. At least three of the panels, including a girlish angel and an old-world Dutchman, are the work of a master artisan.

“When I walked in, I thought, ‘this must’ve been so magnificent,’ ” says Sandra Vardine, who purchased the dilapidated house two years ago. Vardine previously restored two other brownstones along Troy’s historic Washington Park. One of them is Vardine’s residence; the other contains a studio leased by Alexander, who is one of only six buon fresco artists in the country. Assuming that the panels were murals, and recognizing the quality of the painting and the need for their preservation, Vardine asked Alexander, whom she knew as a mural artist, to take a look at them. “Cindy walked in and said ‘Oh my God, these are buon frescos,’ ” Vardine recalls. “I’m fairly educated, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between a mural and a fresco. But I was amazed at the difference.”

“I knew they were frescos right away,” says Alexander. “And I wanted to cry because of the condition they were in. But I was also kind of amazed that some of them were OK. I was worried about them going through another winter. Sandy had the room cleaned out, sealed off, and [heated]. . . . She spent a lot of money.”

Initially, Vardine had hoped that a museum would want them, but despite her best efforts, she reports, she’s had no takers. So Vardine and Alexander “went on a quest,” as Alexander puts it, to find information about the frescos that would help them obtain the money and expertise to restore them. They came up empty. One problem, Alexander says, is that art preservationists in the United States mostly don’t know what fresco is. Another is that grants are almost impossible to obtain for private artworks. And most importantly, they don’t know who the master fresco artist was—though it’s certain he had an apprentice, and it’s probable that the apprentice was a slave, as were many apprentice artists at the White House during the same era.

“Fresco was considered a specialty craft, the artists did not sign their work,” explains Alexander. An extensive search that included the Library of Congress failed to provide a definite name. “I’ve written letters . . . to anybody I can think of,” says Vardine. “Cindy has written letters, to get somebody interested, because the cost to restore them is something that I personally can’t afford to do. But it has to be done.”

“We spent hours and hours researching and writing letters, and then Sandy threw her hands up and said, ‘let’s do it ourselves,’ ” says Alexander. And so they are. Alexander is going to restore the panels by strappo, a painstaking process that removes the top layer of paint by an imprint technique and replaces it post-restoration. It’s a technique she’s studied but has never attempted before. In the meantime, she’s recreating the frescos as murals that will be placed over the original plasterwork. “It’s kind of surreal, how it’s all coming together,” says Alexander.

“It’s amazing, to have these frescos, and a fresco artist who is dying to save them, regardless,” says Vardine. “It’s beyond coincidence. It was meant to be.”

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