1957 work by Baltimore artist Mackall restored, moved to Lyric Opera House

URBAN LANDSCAPE

March 09, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Although Baltimore artist R. McGill Mackall painted more than two dozen murals during a career that spanned five decades, few survive today.

Many were lost or obscured when local buildings changed hands or were remodeled. These include three aviation-related murals at the old Friendship Airport, an early 19th-century view of Mount Vernon concealed behind a lobby wall at The Sun, and 10 of the 12 murals completed for branches of Loyola Federal Savings Bank.

But one Mackall mural has been preserved and moved to a location where it will be seen by more people than ever before.

"Birth Place of The Star Spangled Banner" depicts the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, subject of the Francis Scott Key tribute that became the national anthem.

Mr. Mackall painted it in 1957 for a branch of Augusta Federal Savings Association, a thrift that is no longer in business. This winter the mural was taken from the former Augusta building at 820 N. Howard St. and restored.

The mural was installed off the lobby of the Lyric Opera House and unveiled this week as part of a public celebration of the Lyric's 100th anniversary.

In honor of the anniversary season that began in October, "the Lyric Foundation wanted to preserve a piece of Maryland artistry and heritage and display it in a prominent place" in the theater,

said foundation Chairman H. Mebane Turner.

"Goodness knows what would have happened to it otherwise," said Dr. Turner, who is president of the University of Baltimore.

Robert "Gillie" Mackall (pronounced "MAY-kul"), who lived from 1889 to 1982, came to be well-known regionally for his representational paintings. He was 68 when he painted the Fort McHenry naval battle scene. One of the vessels bears the word "Ethel" -- the name of Mr. Mackall's wife.

The mural became available after the federal Resolution Trust Corp. began to liquidate Augusta's assets. The RTC consulted with Purnell Galleries of Baltimore to seek a buyer.

At Purnell, Vice President Rob Harwood discovered that two logical homes for the mural, Fort McHenry and the Flag House, had no room to display such a large work. The mural is 10 feet 8 inches by 40 feet 2 inches.

When he contacted the Lyric Foundation, he said, Dr. Turner was intrigued. When the RTC asked for sealed bids, the Lyric Foundation won with a high bid of $2,008.

"As someone who likes scenes of Old Baltimore, I'm glad Meb was able to preserve it for others to enjoy," Mr. Harwood said. "It really lends itself to the space."

Robert Peterman, who is writing a biography of Mr. Mackall, was delighted to see the mural in its new setting. "I'm glad somebody had the sense to realize it was a fine painting," he said. "Things like these are white elephants. They can be very difficult to preserve."

After securing rights to the mural, which is painted on Belgian linen canvas, the buyers had to remove it from the Augusta building, clean off 40 years' worth of grime and prepare it for installation.

For that work, the Lyric Foundation turned to Geoffrey Michael Lemmer, a painting conservator based in Upperco. He and assistant David Zizileuskas mounted it on aluminum panels and installed it near the Lyric lobby over the past several weeks. The First National Bank of Maryland donated $25,000, which just about covered the acquisition and restoration, and Purnell framed the mural.

Mr. Mackall painted the mural in three sections. The conservators made two cuts so the mural could be "folded" to conform to the wall space chosen for it, the three-sided top of a stairwell off the Lyric's front lobby.

Mr. Lemmer acknowledges that the cuts and folds represent significant alterations to the mural, which was flat before. But he said they were necessary for it to be installed in the best spot for viewing. All but the cuts can be undone. "So many murals have been lost, and so many others have been cut into small fragments," he said. "This is the entire mural."

Preservation awards

Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group, is seeking nominations for its 1995 preservation awards program. The deadline is Wednesday.

For information, call Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, 366-7724.

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