Behind the grime, installed in a wall, a folk art treasure is found

November 06, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Tattered wallpaper and decades of grime concealed most of the details, but from what contractor Joseph L. Winkler could see, the painting underneath "looked interesting."

Cranking up a chain saw, he sliced a 5-foot by 7-foot, 400-pound section out of the 10-inch-thick front wall of the old hotel-tavern and hauled it to the Baltimore County Historical Society.

Mr. Winkler's intuition was correct. More than four years later, and after months of reinforcement, restoration and cleaning, the mural is nearly ready for installation as a centerpiece exhibit at the society's museum in the old Alms House in Cockeysville.

The painting represents the Waldman Seven-Mile House, a hotel-tavern built in the 1870s at 8441 Belair Road in an area settled heavily by Germans.

"It's a real piece of folk art," said society President Joan Wroten. "Mr. Winkler had an eye for something like that and that saved it."

"It's American primitive art, and it's Baltimore County history," said Josepha Caraher, formerly of the Walters Art Gallery, who did most of the restoration.

The establishment had a bowling alley and a picnic grove, visible in the painting. It "was a center of German social life; many of its customers attended St. Joseph's Church across the road," said county historian John W. McGrain.

The inn was bought at auction in 1877 by J. A. Necker and later was owned by E. Waldman, whose descendants lived in it for years after it was converted to a dwelling.

The building had lain vacant and vandalized for several years before its demolition between 1986 and 1987 to make way for the Olde Forge town house and office building development.

The 42-by-63-inch painting shows the three-story, 13-room inn with long verandas, outbuildings, a pump, horses and buggies -- and two trolley cars.

The trolleys are a bit of fantasy that date the painting to soon after 1900, Mr. McGrain said. He said they look like the "semiconvertible models of 1906."

Street Car Museum expert Mark E. Dawson said the Belair Road electric trolley line reached Overlea in 1903, stopping more than two miles below the Seven-Mile House.

"Maybe the hotel owner thought the trolley line was coming out and he wanted them in the picture," Mr. McGrain said.

The project's benefactor is Elisabeth C. G. Packard, retired chief conservator at the Walters who paid for the restoration and helped in the early stages of the work.

Miss Packard, 84, an art conservator for more than 40 years, critiqued the unsigned painting as probably the work of a sign or wagon painter. "There's nothing subtle or refined about it; the colors -- green, brown, blue, red, yellow -- are the colors used for signs. It's primitive," she said, "I think it's very crude, but that's part of its charm."

"Maybe the guy was paying off a big bar bill," Ms. Caraher suggested with a laugh.

Mr. Winkler, 56, who lives in a 200-year-old restored house near Bel Air, said he grew up in Perry Hall and was familiar with the building from childhood.

He cut out a section 5 feet by 7 feet to ensure a large area around the painting. "That old hair and lime plaster is delicate. It crumbles when something bumps it," he said. "We had to be very careful."

When historical society officials said they were interested, he and his helpers loaded the heavy wall section into a truck and delivered it.

For several years, the piece of wall lay in what is now the society's agricultural building collecting more dust and grime, Ms. Caraher said, until last year, when Miss Packard provided several thousand dollars to restore it.

After preliminary cleaning to see what was there, Geoffrey M. Lemmer, 49, a former chief conservator at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Winterthur Museum and an expert in structural restoration, was called in.

A heavy plywood box was built around the mural. Mr. Lemmer chipped away pieces of shingle that had formed the outside wall of the timber-frame building, reduced the size of the girts and removed the excess plaster that had slopped through the building laths. Eventually, he replaced the girts with specially fabricated aluminum reinforcing bars.

The back of the section -- the laths -- was flooded with acrylic resins to penetrate through the old plaster to solidify the piece. "We poured until it would absorb no more, 5 or 6 gallons," Mr. Lemmer said. Finally, the back was filled in with a special epoxy mixture.

Because of its weight, the picture sat on the floor of Ms. Caraher's North Baltimore studio instead of an easel. "It was grimy and dark and there were missing places," she said. Many solvents had to be tested before the "grime and time from a tavern" could be cleaned away, Ms. Caraher said.

Thick wall paint covered one section. Last December, it was carried outside, and Ms. Caraher donned a respirator, rubber gloves, cap and old clothes to spend five hours cleaning with a highly toxic solvent. "I couldn't stop," she recalled. "Once begun, I had to finish."

When the surface was finally cleaned and varnished to protect the original paint, Ms. Caraher began filling in the missing sections and repainting lost details.

She finished last summer. A few weeks ago the painting was packed up again and moved to Mr. Lemmer's studio for the final framing.

Its weight will require the use of special iron mounting braces in the wall studs in the society museum, Mr. Lemmer said. The frame will match the ceiling molding in the room and will be painted white like the walls.

"The picture will look like it's built right into the wall," Mr. Lemmer said.

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