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Behind The Wall


by Michele Seekings

Mike Ledford/College of Charleston

When I last interviewed painting conservator Catherine Rogers, she and her team of conservators were about to embark on a large-scale project to conserve and restore the murals at the College of Charleston’s historic Sottile Theatre.

After starting the project in February 2019, today Rogers, Craig Crawford, Maho Yoshikawa, and conservation assistant Sharon Infinger are quickly approaching the conclusion of this massive undertaking, anticipating that the theater will reopen just in time for the Spoleto Festival later this spring.

A lot goes into conserving a project of this scale—including time, patience, and expertise. Here’s a look.


Originally named the Gloria Theatre, Albert Sottile opened the venue in 1927 as a place for film premieres and vaudeville shows.

Large classical murals were painted on the north and south interior walls of the theater. Each side mirrors the other with respect to size and number of murals, with one large canvas mural adhered to the wall and four smaller murals painted directly on plaster. Not much is known about the artists today, except that they were most likely Italian artists and living in New York.

A 1927 article in The News and Courier drew attention to the murals. “One depicts a centaur and nymphs with an attractive landscape backdrop, and the other suggests music and drama. On either side of these canvases are fine ornamental patterns.”

Over time, the Gloria Theatre transitioned into a movie theater and improvements were made to enhance acoustic quality. Heavy panels were applied directly to the murals and hidden behind heavy velvet drapes.

Mike Ledford/College of Charleston

After the theater closed in 1975, the murals were forgotten. The space was later acquired by the College of Charleston, reopening in 1990 as the Sottile Theatre. But it wasn’t until 2011, during a round of building improvements, that the forgotten murals were discovered. Even after years of deterioration, it was decided they would be openly displayed. All five murals on the north wall were uncovered. The south wall had to be reconstructed, and the four smaller murals were lost in the repair. The large canvas mural was removed and carefully rolled into a protective tube, where it remained for eight years before Rogers and her team started their work. Funding for the restoration work on these murals was thoughtfully donated by the family of Albert Sottile.


The team began their conservation work with very little documentation or images of the original murals. The large canvas mural that was removed from the south wall measured approximately 15 feet by 30 feet and was found in six separate segments. What’s more: hundreds of black circular blobs covered the canvas, so their next task was to find a solution to remove them.

But what were these blobs?

“They were circular tar accretions approximately two inches by two inches that covered the entire mural,” Rogers describes. “It’s the tar that was applied directly to the murals to hold the acoustical tiles.” It appears that the improvements made to enhance the acoustic quality of the theater was valued more than the artwork at the time.

The team experimented with heat, solvents, and mechanical approaches to remove the tar. “All of that was frustrating because it wasn’t quick and could possibly damage the underlying paint layer,” Rogers explains. “The end result is that we had to use solvents and cotton swabs along with gloves, respirators, and proper solvent ventilation.”

And so they tackled one tar blob at a time—out of an estimated 600 to 800 of them—with each one taking anywhere from five to 10 minutes to remove. “You couldn’t speed it up, and you had to be patient,” she adds.

The team L-R: Sharon Infinger, Craig Crawford,Maho Yoshikawa, and Catherine Rogers | Palmisano/Sottile Theatre

The aim was to get back to the paint layer and try to retrieve any design that was underneath. “Unfortunately, the tar had stained the paint film,” Rogers explains. “Even though we were successfully able to get back to the original paint, we were still going to need to do some glazing and reworking with in-painting to blend in with the adjacent paint colors.”

Along with creases and tears in the canvas, the mural had also sustained water damage and paint loss. For months, the team spent every day working on the mural, removing tar, cleaning, repairing tears, and varnishing each of the segments.


In June, scaffolding was erected in the theater for the team to reinstall the mural. The challenge was to reinstall the segments in their exact places. “It had to match up to the images and center with columns that had not been built yet,” describes Rogers. “It also had to be placed properly with the eight-inch frame that would surround the mural, which had also not been built yet.”

The four smaller murals on this wall had to be totally recreated. Compared to the Italian classical scenes of the large canvas murals, these were a geometric design with Greek key borders. Yoshikawa created a master transparent stencil of the most intact small mural on the north wall to accomplish the task.


“We realized that it was actually a blessing to have the rolled-up mural to work on in the studio first,” says Rogers. In the studio, they had materials and equipment to figure out solutions, and they knew exactly how to proceed when they arrived on site in June. “It saved us some time and energy on how to tackle the remaining murals.”

But they quickly discovered new issues to address. “We found nails, staples, flaking paint, and salt crystals from water penetration,” continues Rogers. “First, we vacuumed the salt crystals off the surface of the paintings, then we used a heat-set adhesive to consolidate the flaking paint.”

Genevieve Palmisano/Sottile Theatre

Another challenge was revealed. In some areas, the canvas was no longer glued to the plaster substrate. “We had to figure out how to reattach it to the wall,” she says.

The canvas also bulged out several inches in certain areas because there was so much broken plaster debris behind it. “We made the decision to take a scalpel and open up the canvas along image designs or seams,” explains Rogers. “We had to get behind the canvas to correct the problems.” This involved removing the rubble, consolidating the plaster wall where needed, filling in plaster where it had been lost, and then smoothing the wall.


And then there was still the task of removing hundreds more of those pesky tar accretions, which required even more finesse. “In the controlled studio environment, the canvas from the south wall was flat and the solvent could be easily contained in a particular area,” Rogers explains. “For the north wall, how do you keep the solvent from running down the mural, potentially causing further damage to the mural?”

By doing it slowly. “It was a laborious task with no speed involved, and it took muscle,” answers Rogers. “The tar is like a piece of hard candy that you’re trying to make disappear in your mouth. It’s a slow process.”


“Everything that conservators do should be reversible,” Rogers emphasizes. “Even though you think we are gluing this canvas to the wall and we want it to stay there forever, it actually may need to come off the wall for some reason. Down the road, if there’s a better material or if the artwork is going to need cleaning a 100 years from now, you want the next group of conservators to remove it easily. It’s safer for the artwork.”

“Catherine and her team have brought the murals back to life,” says Anja Kelley, director of operations at the Sottile Theatre. She appreciates the process it takes to conserve and is excited they have the opportunity to restore the murals. “It’s interesting how every generation and what they value is different,” Kelley observes. “Back in time, they covered the murals to enhance sound quality. What will future generations think is more important? It’s interesting how things come back around, especially with art or decorative art.”

Mike Ledford/College of Charleston

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Posted in Visual on March 11, 2020 (Issue 45: The Festival Issue) by Matt Mill.

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