Friday, April 4, 2003

Restoration of Old St. Mary's nears completion

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] John Babcock from EverGreene Studios in New York City touches up paintings on the ceiling of Old St. Mary's Church.
(Tony Jones photos)
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The bandages are off Cincinnati's oldest house of worship, and gone as well is more than a century of dirt and decay.

Artists with EverGreene Studios of New York City are putting the finishing touches on the final stage of $425,000 in restoration work at Old St. Mary's Church, 123 E. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine.

The $200,000 final stage included cleaning, patching and touching up six hand-painted murals of the Saints and a trompe-l'oiel ceiling.

Trompe-l'oiel, or "trick the eye," is a painting style dating to 400 B.C. From a distance, murals painted in this style appear to have three-dimensional form. In the case of Old St. Mary's Church, the rectangles and other shapes painted onto the ceiling appear to be sculpted into the ceiling's plaster when viewed from the church floor 40 feet below.

[photo] Scaffolding reaches 40 feet to the ceiling of Old St. Mary's Church
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The restoration will be complete in time for Easter.

Artists with EverGreene first had to save the paintings before restoring them. They did that by injecting an acrylic adhesive with hypodermic needles to hold the plaster together under the paint. The artists stripped off dirt before tackling the delicate work of reattaching peeling paint.

Ed Magee, project supervisor, said special glue is used on the peeling paint that "floats" down behind the paint chips. Bandages are placed over the peeling areas and they are ironed back onto the ceiling.

"We try to save as much historic paint as we can," said Magee, who has worked on similar projects at the U.S. Capitol, Radio City Music Hall in New York, Memorial Hall in Cincinnati and many state capitol buildings. "This is a really high-end paint job for the time. It's probably one of the best ceilings in the country."

The mural restoration is actually the third phase of work. The other jobs - restoring the sanctuary at the head of the church and the balcony in the rear - cost an additional $225,000. The balcony features a huge pipe organ, installed in 1929, that has more than 2,200 pipes, some of which came from the organ inside Music Hall.

Old St. Mary's Church is Cincinnati's oldest standing house of worship and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A $425,000 restoration of the church will complete in time for Easter.
Dedicated July 3, 1842, the church was built with bricks baked in ovens of parishioners to save money.
Land for the church was purchased from the estate of General Arthur St. Claire, first governor of the Northwest Territory and the man who named Cincinnati.
Jeff Herbert, chairman of the church's restoration committee, said the work was split up so the church wouldn't have to go into debt to pay for it. He said the restoration is important to the city, the neighborhood and anyone interested in the city's German heritage.

"It's the oldest standing church in the city and has a lot of history context as far as Over-the-Rhine, the German community as immigrants and their place in the city's history," said Herbert, adding the Mass is still performed in German at the church once a week. "The German community still looks at it as a focal point for them, their heritage and their history."

The cornerstone of the church was laid in March 1841, with more than 10,000 people in attendance. It opened the next year, after the congregation performed much of the work to save money: Women baked bricks in their ovens and men cut and hewed whole trees to form the mammoth beams spanning the width of the church.

That tradition is continuing, as many of the parishioners have chipped in with the restoration to save money.

Josh Adams was busy Wednesday taking apart kneelers from the pews and gluing broken pieces back together. "They're like an aging grandparent," Adams said. "They get old and tired."

Magee agrees. He said the church is very much like a living thing, and has to be treated accordingly. "It breathes, expands and contracts with the cold and the heat," Magee said. "We were able to save everything. There are no major holes in the patient."


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