Heavenly Homecoming

By Krista Buszkiewicz
Published in Painting and Wallcovering Contractor magazine


Call it a match made in heaven. When leaders of St. James Catholic Church set out to give their deteriorating building a centennial facelift, they ended up with far more than a contractor.

The mission led, completely by chance, to the heart of the church’s artistic past and the doorstep of its creator.

Attic treasures
It was the year 2000 when the Rev. Donald Goetz and his building committee made a call to Conrad Schmitt Studios, inquiring about the possibility of a restoration project at the church, in Louisville, Ky. The studio, then in its 111th year, was famous for its historic restorations, including work on many churches.

As is routine, a studio worker headed for the attic, searching thousands of old project files for any information about St. James.

Surprisingly, there was an entire file, plucked easily from alphabetical order. And the contents were astonishing.

Not only had the studio worked with St. James, but founder Conrad Schmitt himself had designed the church’s original decorative scheme.

There were more surprises: the original contract (for $8,000); Schmitt’s project notes; and, best of all, black-and-white photos that faintly showed the church’s brilliantly colored original decorative scheme, forgotten and buried under decades of beige and yellow paint.

With their glimpse of the past, the photos pointed the way to St. James’ future.

The toll of neglect
In 2006, Conrad Schmitt Studios was commissioned to restore the decorative vision of its founder at St. James Church.

The task would not be easy. The church had been repainted several times without any documentation. Decades of moisture had damaged the beautiful plaster walls.  Paint was peeling, and the walls and massive dome had a dull, yellow cast. This once-glorious interior lay dormant in the shadows of neglect.

The old photos provided some clues, but artists could make out only a few techniques.  For example, they saw some sort of tile work on the ceiling. They also concluded that large letters bordering the dome must be gold because the photo showed a reflection.

When the studio team arrived on site, they used the pictures to determine what areas of the church to study and what might be hiding under the old paint.

The contract and notes offered more pieces to the puzzle of techniques and materials (“main dome to be as per design submitted, using aluminum leaf treatment for ornamental rays with gold lacquer finish”), but these were not comprehensive.

Uncovering the full decorative details of the church—148 feet wide and 90 feet from the door to the altar—would require extensive investigation and testing.

Historical investigation
The first step in any project (with or without such a nice head start) is to examine the design as related to the time period; conduct a paint investigation, if paint has been layered without documentation; and examine the walls, flooring and window frames to determine how much of the original material can be re-used or replicated.

A studio Master Craftsman and Conservator conducted this two-week effort, with the help of the Project Manager, Art Director and Vice President.

The artists determined that the fading pattern they had detected in the historic photos of the dome was a blue stenciled faux mosaic tile with a series of stars. They were pleasantly surprised to find a substantial amount of plaster work inside the church.  Angels, biblical verses, capitals (architectural columns) and garlands were all constructed of plaster. Finally, in the center of the dome was an unusual focal point: a large human eye, with colored glass eyeball (probably the inspiration of the architect, James J. Gaffney).

The artists noticed some imperfections in the plaster work, such as an off-center angel on a wall. Although the restoration was likely to highlight those flaws, the artists kept them, honoring the remarkable plaster work and original character of the church.

Revealing the past
Deeper study began: a comprehensive, scientific analysis to determine the original decorative elements and colors.  Scaffolding was erected in one area of the church to gain access to architectural elements from the column base to the dome 80 feet above.  To uncover the original designs, colors and finishes, the artists used three techniques: exposure windows, tape tests and microscopic investigation.

Exposure widows, the most popular investigative method, were created to carefully remove each paint layer and uncover the original patterns, colors, surface appearance and conditions.

A variety of proprietary chemical and physical means were used to remove these  layers one by one.  The mildest solvent that was effective was employed, along with various chemical and mechanical techniques, to achieve a clear reading of each design.

The removal process depended upon many factors, including the numbers of paint layers.  For each area of the church, artists experimented with removal techniques using a variety of scrapers, palette knives, strippers and solvents.

Exposure windows were created in sections large enough to determine design repetition and spacing, as well as the manner of design in corners, centers and other special areas. Gradually, the church’s original paint, patterns and techniques emerged.

Deeper analysis
For additional study, the artists turned to ASTM’s “simple tape test,” usually used to assess paint adhesion. In about a dozen areas, they applied masking tape to the surface, tapped it with a ball pin hammer, then peeled it off, removing each layer of paint to expose the original color.

Two core samples of representative paint layers were then taken to the Conrad Schmitt Studios laboratory.  There, conservators sliced the samples on a bias and examined them under a stereo microscope to determine their chromochronology, documenting each paint stratum and coating in the order of application.

The dirt layers between the paint strata helped identify which layers belonged to which decorative scheme and told about how long a scheme lasted before repainting.  Four layers were found in all.

Color study
The microscopic examination served another purpose: It revealed truer paint color, beneath the surface discolorations.  This type of investigation is strongly recommended by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Colors from the exposure windows, tape tests and core samples were then matched to the Munsell System of Universal Color Standards.  The Munsell code numerically describes 300 colors, using the three dimensions of color:  hue (color), value (brightness) and chroma (dullness or purity). Other analytic systems were used to provide spectral data for colors.

In the end, the decorative scheme for St. James Catholic Church was found to include 26 paint colors, seven glaze colors, three types of metal leaf, a faux mosaic dome ceiling, and extensive trompe-l’oeil stencils.  The comprehensive results were documented in an 11-page report that was reviewed by the design team and church committee, then archived.

Sample work
The next step: a bold, floor-to-dome, 18-foot-wide re-creation of the original design. The work began with dry cleaning and wet washing of all surfaces; repairing flat and decorative plaster; patching cracks; applying fiberglass to all flat plaster and ceiling surfaces; and priming.

Guided by the findings of the historical analysis, two artists then spent three feverish weeks restoring that section of the church to its early 20th-century glory.

They replicated stencils, using a four-color palette, and sponge-painted on walls using natural sea sponges. Stencils were cut from oiled stencil paper after transferring the designs using carbon paper. The stencils were created at the studio, then taken to the church for installation.  Colors were applied with half-inch nap rollers; hand-brushed highlights were then added.

Faux brick with texture, grout lines, three-dimensional elements and mortar lines were painted on the walls. High above, niches that held statues were painted a dark blue, popping their neutral occupants to new attention.

Recreating the faux tile on the dome’s rough, concave surface was not easy.  Once a scaffold deck was built to give artists full access, they realized they could not use straight sticks to create even vertical lines. The solution: a Johnson AccuLine Pro Rotary Laser mounted at the top of the dome. This illuminated the ceiling in faultless vertical lines that guided the faux painting.

Green light and rebirth
The sample not only won the building committee’s approval and the congregation’s awe; it fueled the church fund-raising campaign that would make the rest of the project possible. The interior work was part of a $1.3 million restoration that also included repairs to the church organ and roof.

It would take crews of four to eight craftsmen seven solid months, until July 2007,  to complete the interior work, but it was finished in time for the church’s centennial celebration.

Throughout its history, Conrad Schmitt Studios has won numerous awards for its church and historic restorations. The honors have included several Picture It Painted Professionally (PIPP) Awards, from the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America. In 2008, the St. James project captured a PIPP as well.

Still, it was another honor that singled out this project as unique.

During the project’s final walk-through, Father Goetz told Project Director Rick Statz that the building committee felt Statz had led them through the church’s resurrection.

As a sign of the committee’s appreciation, the pastor asked if Statz would carry the cross leading the procession into the church for the rededication Mass.

Statz did, opening a new era on a century-old artistic vision.

“I am a fortunate man,” Statz says, “to have been able to accept such an honor for doing something I truly love.”


Krista Buszkiewicz is the Public Relations Writer for Conrad Schmitt Studios.

Heavenly Homecoming (PDF 6.14 Mb)



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