Richard L. Kerschner and Constance S. Silver
In the 1890s, Chai Adam Synagogue, a characteristic shetl (Jewish village) wood-framed structure was built in Burlington, Vermont. In 1910 a Jewish Lithuanian artist, Ben-Zion Black, painted a mural high on the tripartite wall of the sanctuary apse. His exuberant trompe l’oeil painting was derived from a long tradition of Jewish synagogue decoration in Lithuania. Black’s mural would be significant on its own merit, as an unusual example of immigrant art. However, it now has international importance as a rare surviving example of traditional Lithuanian synagogue art following the destruction of nearly every synagogue in Lithuania during World War II. In the 1940s, Chai Adam became a commercial building when the congregation moved to a new synagogue, Ohavi Zedek. In the early 1980s when the building was repurposed as apartments, the new owner agreed to implement emergency protection of the still-visible mural painting by isolating it behind a false wall in a second floor apartment. In 2012, the opportunity arose for the congregation to move the mural to Ohavi Zedek. Combined engineering and conservation studies confirmed that an innovative approach was needed to save the mural; the entire roof section of the sanctuary apse containing the mural had be cut away and moved as a single unit. On May 6, 2015, a pyramidal section of the sanctuary measuring 11 feet high, 20 feet wide, and 8 feet deep containing the mural supported by a steel superstructure, was safely relocated to Ohavi Zedek.
This paper will describe how an interdisciplinary team of conservators, conservation scientists, engineers, an architect, historians, and preservation carpenters worked together over two years to address unexpected circumstances as the mural was consolidated, stabilized, protected, moved to Ohavi Zedek, and installed and restored in its new location. It will describe research carried out and the conservation treatments that were developed to address the mural’s unusual conservation problems. Black executed his mural paintings on standard lath and lime plaster that existed in the synagogue in 1910. However, by 2012 the mural was in such poor condition that it was unlikely to survive the move. The painted surface had been reduced to a network of curled, fragile and detached flakes. Paint analyses identified the inherent weaknesses of Black’s technique as well as several confusing but important incongruities in his paints that indicate he was hand-mixing them on site. Following a program of analysis and testing, the plaster was strengthened from behind using the consolidant HCT, followed by reconstruction of the plaster keys. To ensure the mural’s safety during the relocation process, a novel system of facings of Crepeline adhered with Acryloid B67, followed by cyclododecane reinforced with fiberglass micro-mesh, was applied to the mural. Foam-lined plywood panels were secured against the faced mural to provide uniform, rigid support during the move. The roof section of the apse containing the mural was surrounded by a permanent steel superstructure to minimize movement of the plaster and to allow safe suspension of the mural in its new location at Ohavi Zedek.