Why does the wall look like THAT?
Gothamist has a great new series called WHY?, where they ask some burning questions about the people, places, and things of our city. Last week’s WHY? asked a question about Grand Central Terminal but the exact same question could have been asked in the sanctuary at the Museum at Eldridge Street – why is there a dirty looking patch of paint on an otherwise pristine mural?
The dirty patch on Grand Central’s iconic ceiling is an homage to the way things were; it is the only patch of ceiling left uncleaned after a 1968 restoration removed decades of grime. Today, the ceiling’s bright green and gold motif is a treasured element of the historic space. It’s hard to imagine it ever languished in unsightly disrepair. But by the mid-20th century it had become nearly black with decades of cigarette smoke, car exhaust and other urban air pollution. The uncleaned patch is evidence of a dirtier time in New York’s history, and of the hard work of the Terminal’s expert mural cleaners – the contrast between the dirty patch and the rest of the ceiling is remarkable.
“Preservationists like to show not just the finished product, but also a little bit of the history of what was there before,” comments Grand Central director George Monasterio in the video. He’s speaking our language! Our landmark’s meticulously restored historic sanctuary is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s pride and joy. But there are moments where, just like at Grand Central, the less-pristine past has been allowed to peek through. The most obvious example is on a wall in the women’s balcony. Along the northern wall, an unrestored section of plaster and lathe interrupts the otherwise beautifully restored painted surface. When I give a tour, someone typically notices it immediately – “what’s going on over there?” they often point and ask. This area was purposefully left exposed and unrestored for the exact same reason a piece of Grand Central’s ceiling was left uncleaned – it tells a story. The unrestored section allows our visitors, many of whom never saw our sanctuary in its pre-restoration state, to see just how deteriorated the building once was. It pays homage to that period of the building’s life, and highlights the cycle of birth, decline and rebirth that we discuss on our tours. The unrestored section serves another useful purpose, too. It allows visitors to get an insider’s look at the construction of a 19th-century building. Close up, you can peer past the plaster, past the slats of lathe, to see the brick structure of the building and even the insulation – made of horse hair!
That’s not the only “dirty patch” you can find in our restored sanctuary. The restored painted domes in the women’s balcony are a celestial blue-and-gold star motif, surrounded by scrollwork in creams and reds. Except one small patch that doesn’t quite match the colors or patterns – the scrollwork looks smaller, the colors much darker. It looks like it could use a good cleaning, but in reality that patch is simply showing an earlier paint job, a layer underneath the layer you see covering the rest of the sanctuary. During restoration, analysis by the fabulous team at EverGreene Architectural Arts uncovered four distinct paint campaigns in the sanctuary – one without decoration when the building was first opened, a second paint scheme in dark, muted colors with small decorative elements, a third much lighter-toned paint scheme that enlarged and expanded the previous decorative motifs, and a fourth scheme that covered over all the decorative work with just a few basic colors. Our paint restorers had a big preservation question on their hands – when you have four layers of paint to choose from, which do you choose to show? (Read more about puzzling preservation questions in this interview with the Museum’s then-Deputy Director Amy Stein-Milford.) The team chose to remove the fourth layer of paint and then restore the third. Restoring the sanctuary to the third paint scheme meant that we could show the sanctuary in its most elaborate and ornate state, the way it would have looked in the true heyday of the congregation’s use of the building. But, the darker layers underneath do peek through in one of the dome in the women’s balcony! To the untrained eye, it may appear to be a dirty patch like Grand Central. But, like George Monasterio says, it’s just another example of preservationists showing their work.
Come visit the Museum yourself to hunt down all our dirty patches, hidden paint jobs, and hand-painted tokens of love!
Chelsea Dowell is the Director of Public Engagement at the Museum at Eldridge Street.