Mural restoration brings Hale’s Great Room back to life

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The historic murals in the Great Room of Hale Library were badly damaged in the fire, but Rachel Gilberti and her team are working hard to restore them to their former glory. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

Since the 2018 fire left Hale Library damaged — including the historic Farrell Library — the beloved institution has undertaken the process of repairing and restoring its rooms and books.

Most recently, the 86-year-old murals of the famous Great Room are being restored, after they were nearly lost in the fire.

Rachel Gilberti, fine arts conservator with John Canning Company, is leading the restoration process.

“[The Great Room] has been a different one for me,” Gilberti said. “ Every single conservation project is different than the other, so you never know what you’re going to encounter. This was fire and water.”

(Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)
The historic murals in the Great Room of Hale Library were badly damaged in the fire, but Rachel Gilberti and her team are working hard to restore them to their former glory. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

Gilberti has been working with the library’s murals since the fire. She first arrived with her team to assess the fire and water damage caused to the murals, and stabilized them during construction. Two years later, she’s back to begin the visual restoration process.

“When I first came, I was doing more like triage really,” Gilberti said. “I was trying to keep the murals on the wall, because we didn’t know really how much damage the water infiltration was going to cause it over the years. So, fast forward two years later, and we’re actually on the process of doing the aesthetic part of it, as well as the consolidation on the wall itself.”

According to the K-State Libraries website, the murals depict the four areas of study at K-State from the 1900s — “Science and Industry,” “Agriculture,” “Arts” and “Home.” They were originally commissioned in 1933 to David Overmeyer, a Topeka-based artist whose work is also found in the Kansas Statehouse, as part of the Great Depression’s Public Works of Art Project and were the largest group of murals in the state at the time.

The murals’ condition in 2018 was not the worst Gilberti had seen. However, she said, they received significant water exposure, both due to sprinkler malfunctions from the initial fire and rain falling through open portions of the ceiling.

Gilberti said because the walls of the Great Room have sandstone embedded in between them, they absorbed the water at a higher rate, which caused the drying process to take about two years.

“For me, it was more like trying to make sure that none of the paint layers popped off the wall,” Gilberti said. “And so we did a lot of consolidation treatment to the paint layer and the surface of the mural. Because back then it was wet, so we couldn’t really estimate what kind of damage was going to happen to the wall itself.”

In addition to the preventative measures Gilberti and her team took to keep the murals on the walls, they also had to undo the work of past conservationists. This included stripping previous layers of varnish that, while protecting the murals from element exposure, had mixed with the water and began blooming — a process where varnish mixes with moisture and creates a clouded area over the artwork.

“[The murals] were fairly recently conserved, so the varnish that was used here was something we were already familiar with,” Gilberti said. “Unfortunately, the work of the previous conservator had to go to waste. We had to remove everything she did because the water was separating the paint layer from the varnish layer. It was visually impairing the murals.”

The historic murals in the Great Room of Hale Library were badly damaged in the fire, but Rachel Gilberti and her team are working hard to restore them to their former glory. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)
The historic murals in the Great Room of Hale Library were badly damaged in the fire, but Rachel Gilberti and her team are working hard to restore them to their former glory. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

Now, Gilberti’s team has begun the final parts of the restoration, and are preparing to start the inpainting process, where they will reestablish any paint losses the murals suffered. This process focuses on conserving the original artwork by matching exact colors to the underlying murals, and only painting the small paint losses as they appear.

“The idea of conservation is exactly what the word explains, is to conserve the original artwork,” Gilberti said. “So inpainting is just us touching up any losses that we have, but we just stick to that one little area. We don’t actually go over any of the original artwork. We just got to match every single color. It’s fun.”

Darchelle Martin, director of communications and marketing for K-State libraries, said Hale plans to have the Great Room, along with the rest of the library, fully open to students by the start of the spring semester.

“It’s been amazing to see everything come back and better than ever,” Martin said. “It was not something we’d ever want to repeat, a very awful situation, but we are making it better because of it. It’s really been neat to watch.”

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