Protecting Church Decorations

By Edward J. Schmitt
Published in Reprinted from Church Property Administration September 1938

The House of God should be a permanent structure, and likewise its decoration should be everlasting. How to preserve such interior decoration is discussed in this article. The author is a member of a family of ecclesiastical decorators. His advice is based on more than thirty years experience. He has been appointed by His Excellency Archbishop Amleto Cicoganini, to collaborate with the ecclesiastical architect, Frederick Vernon Murphy, in directing the decorating and furnishing of the new Apostolic Delegation Building in Washington, D.C.

In discussing the question of preserving church decorations and painting, we have to deal with two different types of work.  One is the type which prevailed until recently – the regulation decorating job with an average life of perhaps ten years. The other is the life-time job – the kind that is not only durable from the standpoint of wear, but of such artistic merit that it should be preserved indefinitely.

Is lifetime work possible under present conditions?  Certainly. There are several examples in this country of decorating done as far back as sixty years ago which require at best a good cleaning and restoration of those portions damaged by leaks, etc. However, these edifices were built during a time when no thought was given to anything but a permanent structure.  Hence the decorator worked along the same lines.  In other words, the decorating was a permanent (if slightly more costly) investment, but a great deal cheaper than if redone every ten years or so.

Fortunately our modern church architects are again building churches that are designed to last. And so the church decorator generally finds ideal conditions for lifetime work.  It is therefore unnecessary to discuss such permanently constructed and decorated buildings in this article.

Existing Structures Offer Problems
It is the existing structure that offers the problems. There are many different conditions to contend with – some of them extremely difficult or even impossible to correct. In churches where such conditions are present, it would be a waste of money to attempt lifetime decoration, simply because of fundamental structural defects which cannot be corrected.

In other churches there might be only a leaky roof which any competent roofing man can overcome. No legitimate decorator will proceed with his job unless he is satisfied there are no leaks to mar his work when it is completed.

Frequently caulking of door and window openings is necessary. Storm windows are always an advantage because they prevent frost and other moisture from running down the walls and thereby marring the decorations.  Of course their other usefulness as protection against cold, means fuel economy as well.

Radiators are generally the cause of a lot of trouble. In most churches they are placed directly against the walls, whereas the farther away they are, the better. It is better not only for preventing dirt on walls, but also for better distribution of heat.  Where radiators cannot be moved, radiator enclosures or covers may be used. These should be designed to match the interior decorations of the church. Radiator enclosures or covers may be made of metal or fashioned of marble slabs.  Because they deflect the warm air currents outward, they cut down the accumulation of dirt on the walls.

Plaster Needs Ventilation
In numerous churches, a serious problem is encountered because of the builder’s practice of plastering directly upon tile or brick. In this type of construction no provision is made for ventilation of the plaster coating. Consequently the plaster surface is extremely sensitive to atmospheric changes, sometimes to the extent of making the walls so wet, that rain leaks are held responsible. In many such buildings the structural materials are painted with so-called waterproof paint. This type of paint keeps the water out, it is true, but it certainly does not prevent condensation and its destructive effects on both plaster and decorations.

In such cases, a new plaster job invariably should be recommended. And to do the work correctly, the walls must be furred and lathed to provide proper ventilation beneath the plaster.

Other church interiors have thin cracks all over the surface, giving the appearance of a jig-saw puzzle.  Lath marks are all too prominent and the walls are generally in a dirty condition. The trouble is easy to diagnose. It is usually the result of cutting costs in the construction of the church. The plaster was applied too thin. Not only does this condition mar the decorator’s efforts (since the markings will recur even after decorating) but also it is the evidence that in the wintertime a great deal of the inside heat is dissipated. Frequently nothing can be done except to decorate in the regulation manner. But if permanent decorations are desired, then there is only one course open. That is, to replaster entirely.

Proper Insulation Needed
Where plastering is otherwise in good condition, but lath marks show to any great extent, it is obvious that the ceiling is not properly insulated. In recent years more or less success has been achieved by laying an insulating fabric that is both thick and flexible, over the upper surface of the ceiling, and also between the rafters. It is in reality a blanket.  Where this method has been tried, the heat is retained much better in winter, while in summer the outside heat does not penetrate so rapidly. Condensation caused by temperature differences is therefore reduced to a minimum.

From the decorator’s standpoint, the ideal church interior is one that is properly insulated and air conditioned. The cost of present day systems may stand in the way. But that should not be a deterrent to the following of certain basic rules in ventilating churches.

Time and time again cases are discovered where attics are sealed tight. A few louvres placed at either end of the attic will produce remarkable results. This simple attic ventilating method not only protects the ceiling, but also adds to the comfort of the church-goer in hot weather.

Methods of the Old Masters
In any discussion about the proper method for obtaining a lifetime decorating job, it might be well to mention that the only certain way to achieve it, is to use the technique employed by the masters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – namely al secco or al fresco. Oil paint should be used on wainscoting and other surfaces that people rub against. But elsewhere something that is more capable of withstanding the elements must be used.

A word regarding acoustical treatment. There are many good materials on the market, and their efficiency is unquestioned. But they should never be applied without first consulting the architect and the decorator. With proper planning there are several of these materials that can be worked most interestingly into the new decorative scheme. But where they are installed independently and solely for the purpose of acoustical correction, they often turn out to be very unsightly.  What the ear hears is important indeed. But equally important, is what the eye sees.

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