Restoring a Treasure

Capping off four decades of restoration at West Virginia Independence Hall, classical decorative artwork has been re-created in the vestibule of the National Historic Landmark in Wheeling.

Master decorative artist John Canning and crews from his firm, Canning Studios in Cheshire, Conn., investigated the building’s original trompe l’oeil work and re-created it. Trompe l’oeil – a French phrase meaning ”deceive the eye” – is an artistic technique in which imagery creates an optical illusion so that objects appear in three dimensions.

The Canning Studios artists have completed installation of trompe l’oeil panels on the vestibule’s ceiling in time for viewing during the West Virginia Day festivities on Wednesday, June 20. Canning, a native of Scotland, and his team installed trompe l’oeil panels on the walls and ceiling of the hall’s third-floor courtroom last year.

Re-creation of the original trompe l’oeil artwork is the latest phase in the ongoing restoration of the historic hall, said Travis Henline, site manager.

In the decades since the building was purchased by the state in 1964, work has been undertaken to restore the structure, built between 1856-59 as a federal custom house, to its appearance in the 1860s, the period when pivotal meetings and constitutional conventions led to the formation of the 35th state.

To accomplish this work accurately, Canning Studios officials and other artists and craftsmen involved in the work at the state’s birthplace have relied upon original architectural drawings and specifications, as well as investigations conducted by restoration experts who worked at the site in the 1960s and 1970s.

Canning and his associates began preliminary work for the courtroom project last July and completed that phase of the installation in late November. At the same time, they conducted research on the trompe l’oeil panels of the vestibule, Henline said.

After months of investigation and creation of the actual panels, the Canning Studios team installed all of the vestibule’s panels in one week, Henline said.

Vital to the artists’ investigative work was the existence of renderings that the late Wheeling architect Tracy R. Stephens drew after the original artwork was uncovered four decades ago, Henline said.

“Back in the late 1970s, before they had to replace the plaster in that vestibule, they went through the original paint layers and found the original artwork,” he explained.

Stephens made sketches from the original artwork that was uncovered, and his drawings were stored with other records in the hall, Henline said.

In addition, he said the restoration experts “had the foresight to cut out sections of the plaster (from the vestibule’s ceiling) and put it in storage” in the building’s upper-floor storage area. Those original ceiling sections yielded paint samples that the modern artists could study and analyze to portray the historic color scheme accurately.

“We had a great deal of information to go by in restoring the artwork,” the site manager commented. “Just like the courtroom, we’re very confident about the artwork of the vestibule.

“There was very little guesswork for John Canning Studios. They found the original plan,” he remarked.

To develop a color scheme for the trompe l’oeil work, samples from the original plaster were sent to the Winterthur restoration program at the University of Delaware for microscopic analysis, Henline explained. Using the Munsell color system to analyze the paint chips, the restoration experts assigned colors for the artwork. “That’s what we used,” he said, referring to the paint colors.

Henline, who has served as the site manager for two and one-half years, remarked, “Of all the stuff we’ve worked on, the artwork has been the coolest thing I’ve been involved in.”

Some of the saved original ceiling sections are being framed and placed under plexiglass for display in the hall’s new restoration exhibit that is set to be completed later this month, he said.

Henline noted that the trompe l’oeil panels in the vestibule are even more ornate than the trompe l’oeil work in the courtroom. The vestibule’s grand appearance was a deliberate move by the building’s designers, he believes.

“That (the vestibule) was the main entrance; that was the presentation space,” he explained. “Anybody who had business in the courtroom or with the surveyor of customs, they had to come through those doors.”

The details of the classical decorative artwork complement the classical elements of the capitals on the building’s interior columns and its other architectural features, he pointed out. “It was all meant to go together,” he said of the design elements.

The names of the artists who created the original decorative work have been lost to history. Parts of the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C., “were being decorated in a similar style” at the time when the custom house was being built, Henline said, adding that Canning speculates that the same artists may have done the work in Wheeling.

“There is nothing in the records to tell us who these people were. It may have been one person, (but) that’s a lot of work for one person,” Henline said.

While the artwork was painted by master decorative artists of the period, “the majority of this building was built by German immigrants in Wheeling,” he said.

“According to the original specifications, all of the sandstone (used on the structure’s exterior) was quarried here in Wheeling, within sight of the building,” he said. The old documents indicate that the sandstone was quarried along Wheeling Creek, leading Henline to theorize that the quarry might have been located in the area of the present-day Ogden Newspapers Printing & Technology Center.

“They brought it (the sandstone) over in chunks and shaped it out on the (building) site,” he said.

Meanwhile, another historically-accurate element is being planned for the building’s exterior. For the next phase of the site’s restoration, specifications are being prepared for the installation of a wrought-iron fence on the property’s perimeter. When the specifications are completed, bids will be sought for the project, Henline said.

While the fencing will provide security for the property, the main reason for installing a fence is to continue the efforts to return the building to its 19th-century appearance, he said.

“The original 1856 specifications call for a decorative wrought-iron fence,” he said. Records from 1867 contain notations of repairs being made to the fence, he added.

The most famous illustration of the building – published in a nationally-circulated magazine in 1861 – shows a crowd gathered outside the custom house. In that drawing, portions of the wrought-iron fence with its pointed caps are visible, Henline pointed out.

“That fence was always a part of this property, from the day this building opened,” he said.

“This (project) is an act of historic preservation and restoration. We are restoring the property to its 1860s appearance,” he commented. “For this building to look correct in the period, that fence has to be there.”

As restoration of the state’s birthplace nears completion, Henline and other members of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History staff are putting the finishing touches on a new exhibit, “Restoring the Glory: West Virginia Independence Hall,” that traces the restoration efforts from the 1970s to the 2010s. The exhibit, housed in a newly-restored room on the building’s second floor, is expected to open in time for the Statehood Day celebration this month.

The official opening of the restoration room is set for Wednesday, June 20, which is the 149th anniversary of the state of West Virginia’s admission to the Union.

Henline said the exhibit’s first panel will feature a timeline of the restoration and photographs of the work in process. Articles and photos from The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register about the restoration work also will be displayed. Images from various phases of the preservation project may be viewed on a flat-screen television monitor placed in the room, he said.

Special sections of the exhibit are dedicated to Stephens, who spent 18 years of his long career working in the building, and to the late Beverly Fluty, the Wheeling preservationist who devoted 30 years of her life to the restoration project, Henline said. Learning of their legacy as he put the exhibit together, Henline said, “I felt such an obligation to do it right.”

The corner dedicated to the architect will feature a drafting table, a desk and some of Stephens’ actual sketches, Henline said.

The 1970s reproduction tile of the building’s 1859 tilework will be shown. Henline said a firm made the reproduction tiles in the 1970s for only three facilities: West Virginia Independence Hall, the U.S. Capitol and the Smithsonian Institution.

Another part of the exhibit covers the wood graining work done throughout the building by Malcolm Robson, the renowned master grainer from England.

Plaster molds from the preservation projects will be on display, along with the cut-out sections of original ceiling plaster and examples of the new artwork.

In the middle of the room, “the molds and the ironwork cast from those molds during the 1960s” will be exhibited, Henline said. “The molds have been stored upstairs for 35 years.”

Another newly-restored room on the second floor will be used for rotating exhibits, he said. The first such exhibit, “Uncommon Vernacular,” will explore historic architecture.

The West Virginia Day observance will feature special focus tours with historical characters beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday, June 20, and continuing every half hour throughout the day, Henline said.

At 2 p.m., a re-enactment will be offered of the speeches given by Francis H. Pierpont, governor of the Restored Government of Virginia, and Arthur I. Boreman, first governor of West Virginia, on June 20, 1863.

The official opening of the new exhibit, “Restoring the Glory: West Virginia Independence Hall,” and the rotating exhibit room will take place at 3 p.m. To cap off the celebration, birthday cake and punch will be served at 3:30 p.m.

West Virginia Independence Hall, located at 1528 Market St., is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission to the museum is free of charge.