Recovery and treatment of St. John’s Masonic

David Goist

Abstract

In September, 1984, Hurricane Diana came ashore near Wilmington, North Carolina. At that time, the St. John’s Museum of Art was renovating the oldest section of its building complex, the St. John’s Masonic Lodge erected in 1801. The roof was off the Lodge building so when the storm hit, there was little to protect the interior.

While there was no art on exhibition, there was a surviving portion of the original Masonic Lodge meeting room decoration over a fireplace mantel. The remnant was a landscape surrounded by the “All-Seeing Eye” in a keystone with a banner which reads “Holiness to The Lord” painted on plaster. The top of the wall painting section features a draped curtain and the lower comers held The Modem Arms of Masonry and The Ancient Arms of Masonry. The Lodge decoration is attributed to a painter named Bellanger who was active in Wilmington and New Bern, North Carolina, during the early 19th century. The reported completion date of ca. 1808 would make the wall painting the oldest surviving landscape in North Carolina and perhaps the southeast.

At the time of the hurricane the Museum was without a Director. Renovation of the building was completed but the wall painting was left untreated. It had been covered over at least twice in its history with wall paper. It was last exposed in 1943 when the building was converted to the St. John’s Tavern. A young local artist was hired to “restore” the wall painting which he carefully did with the aid of his father’s Masonic manuals.

The wall painting went untreated until 1993 when the North Carolina Arts Council agreed to fund the project. The author was contacted to prepare an examination report and treatment proposal which were, in effect, an updating of some condition observations made in the 1980’s. The paint surface had developed a soot deposit because the restaurant had used the fireplace nightly during cold weather. Rain water from the hurricane had streaked the surface as well as caused mold growth. Much flaking and loss of paint had occurred since the 1943 repair and especially the 1984 hurricane.

The recovery treatment involved application of polyvinyl acetate resin AYAA in ethanol applied as a very gentle spray from an aerosol unit. A water/solvent mixture was used to remove the soot, mold, and excess PVA after a number of repeated applications. Inpainting and treatment was aided by the remarkable memory of the nearly 80 year old artist who had undertaken the 1943 repair.