[Audio, Slideshow] A Peek Behind the Restoration of Columbia's Curtain
Restoration work is underway in the historic Columbia Theater in downtown Paducah. Geoffrey Steward leads Atlanta-based International Final Arts Conversation Studios in uncovering the stained glass ceiling, investigating the original paint palettes from 1927 and its modernization in the 1950s. They are also repairing the fire curtain, damaged when the movie screen was installed, patching the holes, sealing the asbestos and repainting the New York Harbor scene. On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf stopped by the Columbia to learn more about the restoration effort.
His Interest in Paducah's Columbia Theater
From working in Buckingham Palace to overseas in the Middle East and Far East to little churches in England and America, every project is unique, Steward says. The Columbia Theater is a great example of post-World War II exuberance with a wild and unique interior. He says it will suit Paducah really well once it's restored as an additional space to enhance the community experience. Once they finish with the clean-up, and once it's safe for the community to see it he hopes they come together with support for finishing the restoration. He hopes it helps revitalize elements of Paducah, bringing people downtown, helping restaurants and drives the local economy. "I think it's definitely a jewel in Paducah's crown," he says.
What is a Fire Curtain?
In the old days, candles and oil lamps were used to light the stage and theaters often had a problem with things catching fire. The fire curtain was made with fabric woven with asbestos then encapsulated with paint in the front and back. This encapsulation wears off over time, leaving the air exposed to asbestos. Steward's crew has repainted the curtain making sure it's safe. Two holes had been cut in the fabric for speakers when the theater was converted to show movies. At some point a forklift was driven through it, he says. His team is patching these areas with non-asbestos canvas.
Fire curtains aren't needed anymore so it will hang mainly as a decorative element. It's a unique piece, he says, and should be preserved as an essential part of the theater. It's signed in 1927 and the studio that painted it is no longer existence. They are referencing vintage photos of the New York Harbor to fill in the missing image. Steward says he's not sure why it's a depiction of the New York Harbor, he says it doesn't really go with the Adamesque 1920s interior and wonders if the curtain was originally in a different theater.
Some "Aha" Moments
Steward says a paint expert came down to do some cross-section analysis of the colors on the wall, using paint samples. They've been able to recreate an example of the original Adamesque style and the Skouros architecture style of the 1950s. In the cleaning process, they've been surprised to find the degree of decoration in the original colors. One of the biggest moments was uncovering the colors of the stained glass panels from the ceiling - very intense purple, yellow and milky white that go well with both interior styles and match the fire curtain.
The Importance of Preservation
It's a way of people remembering their roots, Steward says, seeing the evolution of a local community. Before TV and modern media, local theaters were a main place for locals to get together and communicate. Part of the reason downtowns have fallen into disrepair is that people have moved outside of the original perimeter. This is partly a good thing because rather than knocking down the heritage, the buildings were simply mothballed and have become cultural icons in their own right. You need to preserve to experience and understand history, he says.
To What Point in Time do You Restore a Building?
This is a subjective decision put forth by the local preservation office, park service, client, owners, etc. How much do you save, how much do you throw away? There are many different opinions on the best use or way forward. But this is why research is important, he says. With an old building you have to look a its history and it's importance.
When working on the Edison Winter home in Florida, the house was much older than the 1920s period it was restored to, but that period was when Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone were getting together to shape modern America. When working on the St. Michael's Church in South Carolina, they decided to restore it to the Tiffany style interior. An older interior was uncovered and recorded, but from an historical perspective, the Tiffany interior was more important.
The Columbia Theatre has two distinct styles. Steward says personally he finds the 1950s look unique and almost "Disney" in its extravagance. The 1920s Adamesque interior is nice as well, he says, but most of the original elements have been removed: light boxes, fluted columns and murals depicting scenes of Kentucky have long since gone. There's simply more of the 1950s interior still intact, it's over-the-top plaster moldings are almost overwhelming, he says, making it a real "wow interior." There are a lot of Adamesque interiors intact around the country and very few interiors with the 1950s Skouros style.
Some Steward's favorite projects in America have been Roosevelt's Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. Roosevelt also had an old stagecoach that was fun to work on. He helped with the restoration of Jack Benny's trunk that he used in stage shows to release moths from for money. He recalls restoring a 96-foot Titan One Missile. An ongoing project includes the old Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida with a nice Tiffany interior - he's working on the exterior currently, also the John Ringling Mansion in Sarasota, Florida. "When you've got two-hundred or something you can lose a few... When you've got three then you've got to preserve what you can while you still can."
Advice for a Student
There are a lot of theoretical courses out there, he says, but craft skills in America are sadly lacking. While he was on the board for the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, he set up a program to train American conservators and artisans, people who could replicate the old finishes and understood the original methodologies. Originally, most of the craftsmen coming to America were first generation Europeans who built the country. The second generations went on to become doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc. but didn't carry on the craft traditions. His crew has been through the program in Asheville and he's proud to use American craftsmen in his restoration projects.
For restoration work it's important to understand original methods like using rabbit skin glue, wood-graining, faux bois, marbling, gold leaf using oil and water gilding techniques; and modern materials like resins, using a photo spectrophotometer, ground-penetrating radar, 3D technology and laser techniques.