Lincoln Memorial murals artfully restored to visibility

July 31, 1996|By Jayson T. Blair | Jayson T. Blair,BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON -- When National Park Service officials asked Christina Cunningham-Adams to help restore two majestic murals inside the Lincoln Memorial, she immediately said she would love to. Then she asked, what murals?

Like millions of Americans who have visited the open-air marble memorial each year since 1922, the conservator had never heard of the two 69-foot-wide murals on the side walls to the left and right of the massive statue of Abraham Lincoln. One portrays the freeing of slaves, the other depicts national unity after the Civil War.

The murals were almost impossible to see: Years of moisture, dirt and fungus had faded the bright colors of the oil paintings. A varnish applied to preserve the murals, painted by New York artist Jules Guerin almost 80 years ago, had eroded, creating a white veil that obscures the colors. It was as if "you had a painting at your house and put it on the back porch for 75 years," said Cunningham-Adams, of Sandy Hook, Conn.

Now, after a year of painstaking work, cleaning the murals inch by inch with a chemical agent she formulated herself, Cunningham-Adams and a restoration team have brought the murals back to life, bringing them back to their original deep hues of brown, green, red, yellow and blue.

The 15-foot-high murals were central to the monument's original design, but no one in our generation has seen them, said Cunningham-Adams, 50, a 1981 graduate of the painting conservation program at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum.

The $407,000 mural restoration is part of a multimillion-dollar refurbishing of the Lincoln Memorial, dedicated in 1921.

On the north wall, above the etched words of Lincoln's second inaugural speech, "Unification" celebrates the end of the Civil War with representative figures from the North and South joined together by an angel. In "Emancipation," on the south wall, above the words of the Gettysburg Address, an angel stands among freed slaves with broken chains at their feet, and is flanked by figures representing Justice and Immortality. There are 48 figures in the murals.

The slaves encircling the angel are the rich color of mahogany, their toga-like robes in vivid yellow and red. In both murals the angels wear bright yellow and have reddish hair.

Cunningham-Adams said that Guerin and the monument's architect, Henry Bacon, realized the potential for damage to the murals from the open-air environment. But the heating system they designed to keep the walls warm was abandoned in the 1940s.

"It would be ideal to put some doors on the Lincoln Memorial, but for some reason I don't think that would fly," she quipped.

Her work will be completed in a few weeks, she said, a hint of relief evident on her face.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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