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'There's nothing like this': Michigan conservator takes on fresco restoration in Davenport's Gold Coast
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'There's nothing like this': Michigan conservator takes on fresco restoration in Davenport's Gold Coast

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An amazing thing is happening inside the historically significant Iles Lambrite Petersen mansion on Davenport's West 6th Street.

Standing on a scaffold in the foyer, art conservator Kari Miller Fenwood is using a tiny brush to stroke paint onto a wall. It is one of countless strokes she will make to restore a magnificent, hand-painted fresco that stretches out onto the walls behind her, then continues up the central staircase wall for one, two, three flights to the tower on top, covering some 2,184 square feet of wall space.

This secco fresco — meaning a painting on dry plaster — originally was created as this house was being built in the mid-1850s.

Through skillful use of color, shading and perspective, those painters used a technique called trompe l'oeil, or "fool the eye" to make the walls look like white marble, inset with panels of green marble trimmed in wood molding. Near the ceiling, they painted garlands of leaves entwined with ribbon, grapes and hydrangea blooms, topped by deep crown molding.

And, in the foyer, they painted six small portraits of unknown identity.

When Dick and Linda Stone bought this mansion in its dilapidated state in February of 2015, saving it from demolition, the fresco was nearly as sad as the house. The walls on which it was painted were cracked and water-damaged from years of rainwater leaking in from above, and where the images were still visible, the paint was discolored and chipped.

Because the Stones spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the home into livable shape — plumbing, heating, electrical, new roof, new windows, new walls — one might wonder whether they weren't tempted to forego restoring the fresco.

Why not paint over it and be done?

But that "never crossed our minds," Linda Stone said. "When we saw the wall, it was important to the house. We wanted it to be restored. The fresco is one of the stand-out things of the house, of a house with many outstanding things."

The first several years of work on the property were devoted to urgent tasks such as replacing the leaking roof and installing a working boiler, but in the past three years the Stones made concerted attempts to try to find someone with the skill and willingness to restore the fresco.

They struck out at least five times and were beginning to lose hope.

Finding someone to do the job

Then a relative living in Michigan told them about Fenwood, a woman with a studio in Holland, Michigan, who has studied in Europe, trained at the Smithsonian Institute and done fine arts restoration work nationwide. Given her reputation, the Stones didn't think she would want to take on their project, "but in desperation, I emailed her, and she emailed me right back," Linda Stone said.

In November, Fenwood and her two sons, Walker Glass and Ambrose Glass, arrived in Davenport to make an assessment. They were very interested. They thought they could do it. They struck a deal, returning in January to begin the project in earnest.

Once here, they spent the first three weeks doing "prep," with the amount of frescoed space seeming to grow as they went along. In addition to the wall space, they are responsible for about 423 square feet of ceiling space, two plaster medallions (from which light fixtures will hang), two alcoves, an arch on the second floor and fancy crown molding in the belvedere, or tower.

Major cracks had been filled by plasterers, but much work remained, beginning with cleaning every surface with a solvent. "It was really filthy," Fenwood said.

They began at the top and worked their way down so they could catch the flakes that "rained down" as they worked.

They also painstakingly removed chipped or damaged bits of paint, filled in the space with a special putty, sanded it smooth, then covered newly blank areas with a water-based wash.

Fresco will look aged

Then Fenwood began mixing paint colors, creating at least 60 different shades.

The green leaves in the garland, for example, are many colors of green. When the original painters did their work, they likely mixed paints on the spot, in their trays, as they went along, Fenwood said.

This created "nuances that are so beautiful," she said. "If you didn't do that, it would look terrible."

Fenwood's goal "is to keep what exists and marry the new with the old and make that all work. It is extremely difficult, but it is so worth it."

When finished, the fresco will not look brand-new; instead it will have the "feeling and integrity of an aged fresco," Fenwood said.

Different cultures view restoration differently, but Westerners, "like to know it is an old thing, and there's value in that. And there are so many areas (of the fresco) that are good." 

One thing Fenwood and the Stones discovered is that the original fresco paint is continuing to deteriorate. When the Stones bought the home, the interior was very wet and as it dried out over the years, the plaster under the paint dried, and bits of color flaked off.

And this continues almost daily. On one recent day, Walker Glass is filling in pits with the special putty. "I keep going back and back and filling in and sanding and touching up," he said.

When finished — Fenwood hopes to wrap up mid-March — she intends to seal everything in a varnish with a matte finish that was developed for marine use. It will keep the paint intact, resist fading by ultra-violet light and will be scrubbable. 

"It will last 100 years. As long as the place is cared for."

The mystery of the portraits

People who have researched the home have not been able to determine who did the fresco originally. The closest they've come is a newspaper account that said the home's architect had hired painters from Chicago. From her knowledge of past practices, Fenwood said the crew likely would have consisted of 10-12 people working about six months.

Then there's the mystery of the portraits.

Are they literary figures? People in theater? All are wearing hats; one with a helmet appears to be a conquistador, while another resembles a pixie with a leafy head covering.

Despite her educational background and all the work she has done in various places, Fenwood shakes her head when she tries to think of a similar fresco.

"I've been looking for something that's similar," she said. "There's nothing like this."

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Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories following the restoration of the Lambrite-Iles -Petersen house at 510 W. 6th St., Dav…

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