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Stripping away the darkness from murals

NEW YORK — The lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, that movie-set-perfect Art Deco interior, sees thousands of people every day. Most are passing through. But for the past nine months a team of six conservators has all but moved in and will be there for the next two years.

Carefully concealed behind giant scrims, they spend hour after hour methodically removing decades of yellowed varnish from the building's famed murals, one inch at a time.

Their work is so quiet and the scrims — blown-up photographs of the murals — so unobtrusive that nobody seems to notice them.

"The other day I sneezed and nearly scared someone to death," said Gillian Randell, chief conservator for EverGreene Architectural Arts, the Manhattan company restoring the murals. (EverGreene has worked on other landmarks, including nearby Radio City Music Hall.)

When the murals in the north corridor of 30 Rockefeller's lobby were finally cleaned, Jeffrey Greene, EverGreene's president, had a eureka moment. "I realized the building was out of balance," he said one recent steamy morning, standing on a second-floor balcony and staring directly into "Abolition of War," a mural by the Spanish painter Jose Maria Sert that depicts a woman astride two cannons with a baby in her outstretched arms.

When Rockefeller Center was built (it was conceived in 1930 and finished nine years later), "the marble was supposed to have the same tonalities as the background color of the walls and the murals," Greene said.

During construction, Edward Trumbull, a painter, designer and muralist, coordinated the color schemes of all the artwork and the finishes for the lobbies of every building in the complex. But over the years the surfaces grew darker. And as the murals' topcoat of varnish deepened, the maintenance staff painted the undecorated parts of the walls a darker color to match. After the north corridor lobby murals were cleaned, Greene discovered that the color scheme for the whole interior was out of whack.

The murals "were supposed to be in harmony with the warm, stone color of the marble," he explained. With the cleaning, he added, "it was as though we'd switched on the lights."

The ravages of age became apparent in other ways, too. For example, over the years the baby in "Abolition of War" had been obscured and looked like a blemish.

Two years ago, when Tishman Speyer, co-owner and manager of Rockefeller Center, hired EverGreene, Greene spent six months doing nothing but research. "I read the Rockefeller family archives," he said. (Robert J. Speyer, senior managing director of Tishman Speyer, would not specify the project's cost, although it is believed to exceed seven figures.)

Like the surrounding complex, the art at 30 Rockefeller Plaza has a rich history. A committee set up by John D. Rockefeller and his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., decided that the artworks there should have a unifying theme, New Frontiers, encompassing aspects of a modern society: science, labor, education, travel, communication, humanitarianism, finance and spirituality. Because 30 Rockefeller Plaza, near the Channel Gardens, where the Christmas tree stands every year, was considered the center's flagship, it was to be the most elaborately decorated.

By 1933 the committee was making lists of the most talented names to consider. Initially artists like Picasso and Matisse were candidates. But they were unavailable and would have been too expensive. Sert was on the list too, along with the British painter Frank Brangwyn, who ended up creating murals for the lobby's south corridor.

Diego Rivera was also brought on board, but his work was removed and destroyed when he refused to alter a panel glorifying Lenin. In its place, Sert created "American Progress," one of several murals he contributed.

More than 16 feet high and 41 feet long, "American Progress" was installed in 1937 behind the information desk. An allegory for the building of contemporary America, the scene includes statues of the muses of poetry, music and dance, their arms reaching toward the men of action with laborers in the center and Abraham Lincoln, wearing a top hat, resting his hand on the shoulder of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Brangwyn's four murals, installed in 1934, used the same muted palette as Sert's compositions, but the subject was man's search for eternal truth through Christ's teachings. Brangwyn didn't rely on professional models but used folks from his home in Ditchling, about 50 miles south of London.

Before the cleaning began, Greene enlisted several scientists to analyze and test the murals to determine their condition, the composition of the paints and exactly what had been done by previous conservators. "I was afraid these murals were hiding a multitude of sins," he said.

It was the 1970s varnish, they realized, that had to be removed first. One scientist formulated a chemical cleaning solution, but Greene was afraid to use it, concerned that it might damage the paint underneath.

He also tried removing the varnish with an electric toothbrush, but it didn't come off easily enough. Then he realized that the simplest method was still the best: gently rubbing all the surfaces with an agate burnisher or a bone folder, a tool more commonly used for book binding. By working slowly, in tiny sections, the varnish began to flake off easily. "It's a green, incredibly low-tech solution," Greene said. Still, he added, "it is going to take two years to get through all the murals, one inch at a time."

Beneath the varnish the original glaze on the murals still has its sheen. Nevertheless, there are small losses, or blemishes as Greene calls them, and places where previous conservators had scrubbed too hard, damaging some of the designs. He and his team have had to paint in those areas.

Their two biggest challenges still lie ahead: "Time," Sert's mural on the lobby's ceiling, and "American Progress," at the information desk. To work on Sert's dramatic ceiling, conservators plan to build what Greene calls a "dance floor" above the foot traffic. More difficult will be tackling "American Progress" because it conceals electrical and mechanical equipment from the elevators.

"Over the years there has been damage from decades of floods," Greene said. "We want to avoid radical surgery. First we will clean the mural, stabilize it, reattach pieces of canvas that have gotten loose, and flatten pockets that have formed." And as they have throughout the project, conservators will delicately paint in any discolored or damaged surfaces.

"I don't want to go too far," Greene said. "I will leave it this way for future, newer technology."