LEWISBURG, Pa. - As a student at Bucknell University, John Hartmann, Class of '79, was intrigued by the art deco-style murals on the walls of the historic Campus Theatre.
A studio art and chemistry major at the time, Hartmann studied the larger-than-life figures of a man and woman holding their hands over their heads as their vestments swirl around them. He recognized the style as typical of the early 1940s, when the theater was built.
"When people went to the theater, it was not just to watch a movie," Hartmann explained. "It was about the whole ambience. The experience was loaded with culture and art. It allowed you to escape real life."
Rehabilitation project Now an art conservator and president of Carlisle, Pa.,-based Hartmann Fine Art Conservation Services, Hartmann has been commissioned to conserve the murals, decorative ceilings and walls and to uncover the original paint colors in the Campus Theatre. It's part of a $2.5 million rehabilitation of the downtown landmark, which is one of a handful of art deco theaters built in the early 1940s that still remains in operation.
The general contractor, R.S. Mowery & Sons, which also completed the original Weis Center for the Performing Arts and the Kenneth Langone Athletics and Recreation Center, began work on the Campus Theatre in early February and is expected to complete the project by mid-summer, said Jim Hostetler, Bucknell's director of construction and design. The project includes installing new air-conditioning and heating systems, adding a more prominent concession stand and larger and more comfortable seats, and installing new sprinklers, lighting and carpet. The stage will be enlarged and made handicap accessible, and new sidewalks are being constructed outside.
Hartmann has worked to conserve precious works of art, including a damaged painting that belonged to Christopher Columbus and intricate ceiling murals buried under 22 layers of paint in the vice president's office in Washington, D.C. As a conservator, he seeks to maintain the original intent of the artist while preserving the integrity of the artwork.
"When you go to a museum to see a Monet painting, you don't want to see it the way it looked the day it was painted," he explained. "It should show its age but look like it's been cared for."
Uncovering history Hartmann, who has a master's in art conservation from the State University of New York at Cooperstown and previously was chief conservator for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, said he draws on his chemistry and art background from Bucknell in his work. He described art conservation as similar to solving a mystery or playing a strategic game. It involves historical research, physical examination and scientific testing such as pigment identification, X-radiography and chemical analysis.
"It's like playing chess," he said. "You have to think ahead and realize where you want to get to in the end. Conservators are educators, managers, scientists and problem-solvers. In dealing with artwork, no two projects are alike. One painting may have been stored in a barn and one in a house. One may have a tear and one doesn't, or it has been previously poorly repaired by someone who wasn't qualified to do the work. Each individual artifact dictates what it needs to have done, based on its specific condition."
Layer by layer At the Campus Theatre, the conservation team is using a combination of chemicals and detergents to safely remove the dirt without disrupting the original paint on the murals. Many surfaces have had to be cleaned several times to remove oil and soot embedded in the paint, the result of a "puff back" from the theater's furnace that covered the walls and ceiling.
"This theater is extremely important because it retains the majority of its original decorative painting and interior architectural elements," Hartmann said.
In addition to the furnace blowback, the conservation team has found water damage from roof leaks and evidence of cigarette smoke from a time when smoking was allowed at the theater. Hartmann and his team also are working to undo some of the temporary fixes that were made over the years. They have removed acoustical fiberglass panels that were covered in canvas and glued to the walls with construction adhesive, for example. They also have removed several layers of paint inconsistent with the original mural colors.
Hartmann noted that they always separate the new conservation work from the original artwork with a protective coat of varnish.
Inspired by a professor Hartmann has enjoyed being back in Lewisburg and at Bucknell, he said. He was inspired to pursue a career in conservation by Professor Emeritus Harold Heine, a former chair of the chemistry department.
"When I got to my senior year, I realized I didn't want to spend another summer doing chemical research," Hartmann recalled. "Professor Heine had a friend who had a Ph.D. and worked in the paint industry. The friend told me he did a lot of work in the conservation profession, too. So I changed my major from a B.S. in chemistry to a B.A. in chemistry and art."
Hartmann said his study of organic chemistry gave him a better understanding of how chemicals and adhesives interact with other materials and surfaces and of which chemicals may be used to remove dirt without disrupting the paint.
"My background in chemistry helped me understand how it works and all fits together," Hartmann said.
Historic significance Roger Rothman, an associate professor of art history, noted that the restoration project is important not only to Bucknell, but also our national history.
"One of the things that makes Lewisburg so special is that it has been able to hold onto tradition," Rothman said. "The Campus Theatre is a rare treasure and vital record - not only of our local history, but also of the history of American architecture and design."
Lewisburg Mayor Judy Wagner, who received her master's from Bucknell in education and counseling, said the Campus Theatre has served as a connection between Lewisburg and Bucknell for generations. In fact, her father, Richard Irvin Wagner, was a local artisan who helped paint the original murals.
"The murals were always precious to me because of my grandfather's connection to them, but you could tell they needed to be redone over the years," Wagner said. "I am so glad they are being refurbished. I peeked in last week, and you can really see the jewel tones come through. There is a real energy to them."
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