Catholic Chaplain’s Office
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA
MURALS & MOSAICS
Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), a National Historic Landmark, contains within its massive schist walls an office for the Catholic Chaplain who ministered to the men incarcerated there. In 1955, inmate Lester Smith experienced a religious conversion and felt called to demonstrate his new-found faith. With paints and brush, Smith decorated the plaster walls of his chaplain’s office with murals depicting various religious scenes, ultimately covering almost all surfaces with his artwork. In the forty years the prison has been closed, roof leaks and exposure to the elements have caused the religious murals to deteriorate significantly.
To understand the murals’ specific conservation needs, Materials Conservation studied the underlying causes of deterioration, and developed methods to stabilize the substrate, reattaching the paintings to their supports, removing a previously-applied facing tissue, as well as cleaning severely darkened and damaged surfaces. The pilot treatment stabilized these issues.
Based on the pilot, ESP installed a climate control system and brought our team back to repair walls, floors, and built-in furniture. We continued on to complete a comprehensive stabilization of the murals which included delicate cleaning, consolidating and re-adhering loose paint, and inpainting just enough to make images legible. To successfully complete this project, MC worked with consulting paintings conservators.
The offices are now opened for public tours.