Friday morning a quiet sense of anticipation filled the lobby of Watertown’s City Hall. The marble covered atrium was filled with history lovers and art preservationists waiting to see what secrets are held by a pair of paintings dating back to the early 1930s.
The towering paintings have been inset into the walls of Watertown’s Town Hall (since 2021 City Hall) since it opened in 1932. One shows a map of Watertown 300 years after its founding, and the other shows the town as it was laid out when it was founded in 1630.
The artworks show signs of their age, with dirt and grime from nearly a century hanging on the walls, as well as some usual damage suffered over that span. The paintings will be restored as one of Watertown’s first projects using Community Preservation Act funds.
The work on restoring Irving Park got a slight head start on the painting restoration, said Elodia Thomas, a member of the Community Preservation Committee (CPC), but they were the first to projects recommended by the CPC and approved by the City Council.
Lanae Handy, Watertown’s Community Preservation Coordinator, also watched intently as the work began. It has been a long time coming, with the CPA passing in November 2016, the CPC being appointed in 2019, the development of the application process and guidelines, and finally the first applications in June 2022.
“So, it is super exciting to finally begin the first project in Watertown CPA,” Handy said.
The Historical Society of Watertown applied for the CPA funding, said Joyce Kelly, a longtime member.
“(Historical Society Board President) Marilynne (Roach) and I have noticed these paintings for years. They’ve been on our radar and noticed they need repair,” Kelly said. “One of them was actually used as a tack board at one point. We’ve noticed they are really dirty and they are really beautiful. They just need a little work.”
When the work is complete, and the paintings return, Roach hopes the paintings will bring new light to the lobby of City Hall.
“It’s great that (they are) being cleaned and mended where it needs mending, because people haven’t noticed they were here for a long time, I think,” Roach said. “And once they are back to what they looked like when they were new, they’ll notice them more.”
The restoration process will take about a year. Kelly said the Historical Society has several projects in mind for CPA funds, but this project rose to the surface because it is visible and seemed to be simple.
“We thought this would probably be the easiest historic preservation project and it turned out to be many moving parts. It was much more difficult than we realized,” Kelly said.
Along with someone to bring the painting back to its original glory, the Historical Society had to find someone to repair and replace the brass frame. Also, a firm had to be found to take the paintings off the wall and transport them to the restoration studio.
“So, there are a whole bunch of moving parts,” said Kelly.
Kelly got a list of conservationists from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and then she made many, many phone calls. She found Louise Orsini, who will restore the paintings. She is a former fellow in paintings conservation at the Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and a former assistant conservator in the Department of Paintings Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Orsini will have the paintings delivered to her studio in Malden, where she will come up with a restoration plan.
“I’ve come here before and had an initial look at them, of course, but once I get them to the studio I’ll do a detailed examination,” Orsini said. “General stability is what we address first: the instability of the support around the edges where it is breaking or if there are holes. And then instability in the paint layers. If paint is flaking, I can stabilize that, then I can address the aesthetic issues, which will be a lot of grime removal, and retouching of areas that are scratched or damaged.”
Finding someone to work on the frame proved more difficult, but Orsini had a suggestion.
“I told her that I couldn’t find anybody and she suggested Andy (Haines), who used to work at the MFA also,” Kelly said. “He worked there for 30 years.”
Haines was the MFA’s Associate Conservator, Furniture and Frame Conservation from 2002 until a few years ago when he retired. He has also done frame restoration work for the Worcester Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, and Princeton University’s museum.
The work at City Hall began with Haines removing the brass frames surrounding the paintings, at least the parts still remaining.
“I will clean up the oxidation, remove the spider webs,” Haines said.
Finding replacements for the brass frame has been difficult, Haines said, because they are not made anymore. Instead he will create replacement pieces out of wood and guild them with copper and gold.
“That should look like brass, and it does tarnish, so that is probably the way to go,” Haines said.
Before the work could begin, the paintings had to be removed from their places inset into the walls of City Hall.
After Haines removed the frames, the folks from fine art logistics company Maquette Fine Arts Services got to work removing the many items holding them in place. There were screws, brads and even nails, along with some wooden pegs placed along the top.
“There were at least 20 screws and nails,” said Stephen Muroe of Maquette, which is based in New York and has a location in Boston that works with variety of places, including the MFA and the Isabella Gardner Museum.
The pieces were painted on a large board made of masonite, a composite material made from small bits of wood compressed together. The edges of the paintings showed signs of damage.
“One had brads and nails,” Munroe said. “I think they noticed it sag overtime.”
The crew from Maquette got up on ladders to ease the “1630 to 1930” painting out of the wall. They had a few false starts when hidden fasteners were discovered. Finally, they tipped it off the wall where it sat for 90 years.
They placed it into a foam frame cut just to size so it fit the painting snuggly. Members of the Historical Society looked on the back, but could find no indication of who had created the piece.
When the other painting, the 1630 map, came down, they found some clues, Kelly said. The names Joyce Hirtle and Gilbert Thomson were written on the back of the painting along with the date March 31, 1932. Kelly did some research and found Joyce Hirtle in a 1938 Watertown resident listing, which listed his occupation. She also and an obituary from 1966.
“Looks like Joyce Hirtle was a carpenter,” Kelly said. “My guess is that he and Gilbert Thomson hung the paintings, but didn’t create them. Darn!”