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Restoring Glory: A Renaissance-style Art Studio Creates Modern Magic

Restoring Glory: A Renaissance-style Art Studio Creates Modern Magic

By Amanda Erickson

Bill Mensching has aged a painting four hundred years, created a gigantic glass mural for a hotel in Las Vegas, and shipped the makings of a neo-classical Catholic church from New York to California.  But he was momentarily stumped by his latest assignment: transforming 150 square feet of canvas into silk.

“This was a tough one,” Mensching said, pointing to a moss-green colored sheet hanging on the wall of EverGreene Architectural Arts (formerly known as EverGreene Painting Studios) in Manhattan. His client, the Paramount Theater in Boston, was trying to restore its interior to its 1930s grandeur, which meant Mensching and his team had to recreate twelve massive murals to suspend around the auditorium. They had settled on a design for each section, but not a way to produce a background that would resemble the silk originally used.

Then an ingenious solution came to Mensching as he was looking at his collection of CDs and DVDs. On a dowel, he built a roller of DVDs stacked between washers, tested it out, and voilà. The piece of canvas now has hundreds of thin golden lines running across its width and is virtually indistinguishable from raw silk.

"We're putting back a piece of America."
-Jeff Greene

Restoring and enhancing old designs with new technology has become a hallmark of EverGreene, a New York City–based art and restoration firm. The studio is one of the top three renovation companies in the United States.  EverGreene artists have completed assignments in such varied locales as state capitals (thirty-three to date), theaters and concert halls, Las Vegas casinos, Grand Central Terminal, Dubai hotels, the Library of Congress, and the Empire State Building. And amazingly, they have a perfect track record for coming in on budget and meeting all deadlines.

The scope and depth of the restoration work that EverGreene produces is remarkable. That work includes mural painting, glazing, gilding, metalwork, woodwork, inpainting (restoring lost parts of images), and plaster-casting. (See Sidebar: “A Twenty-first Century Plaster Shop”)  It’s not uncommon for EverGreene to restore to vibrant life, and in exquisite detail, historic venues that previously appeared utterly ruined—often by fire or water damage. The restoration of the Utah governor’s mansion, built in 1902 by mining magnate Thomas Kearns and partially destroyed by a 1993 fire, featured a complete replication of the interior wood carvings and millwork. Utah’s then-governor Mike Leavitt called it “one of the most outstanding historic restorations in the country.”

Once completed, the precision of EverGreene’s masterful restoration work can be seen in striking “before and after” photographs—and numerous awards. The studio also creates original art and design work for hotels, corporations, restaurants, museums, amusement parks, casinos, government sites, and private residences.

Hard work and determination

The studio’s services haven’t always been so popular. EverGreene founder Jeffrey Greene started his professional life wondering how he would ever support himself while doing what he loved: painting murals.

He began his college career in the 1970s, studying portraiture at the Art Institute of Chicago, but he changed his focus to murals after tooling around the city’s South Side and seeing the massive “black power” pieces created by community artists.

Interest in the form had almost died out, but Greene moved to Manhattan after school hoping to revive the craft. He accepted a job as a billboard painter and spent his spare time trolling for clients who wanted large-scale art. He advertised by sticking fliers under the doors of stores and what he assumed were “fancy” apartments, asking if anyone needed artwork done.

Slowly, the hard work and perseverance started to pay off for Greene. He began to develop a base of clients. He also learned about the technical aspects of art—how to create paints, what type of tools to use on walls and ceilings, and how to produce glazes and other wall coverings. In time, he shifted his focus from designing new art to restoring old work.

That move coincided with a national trend toward preservation. During the 1950s and 1960s, builders focused on the latest design techniques, leaving many old buildings to decay. “Older buildings went out of style,” said Andrew Dolkart, director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University’s school of architecture. That changed in the 1970s, when a new generation of architects emphasized restoration over rebuilding.

The new focus was perfect for Greene, who opened his art studio in the early 1980s. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

EverGreene’s big break came in 1986, when the firm was hired to restore the intricate Victorian designs in then-Vice President George H. W. Bush’s office in the Old Executive Office Building in Washington. This commission generated a slew of publicity and led to projects at the Chrysler Building, the Library of Congress, and Radio City Music Hall.

Engineering success

Twenty years later, there is more work than ever. The studio works on more than two hundred projects a year and grosses more than $15 million, sending artists around the globe.  In a typical year, the firm might install intricate hotel ceilings in Dubai, wall paintings in Las Vegas, and religious sculptures at a Benedictine abbey in Missouri.  One of EverGreene’s largest projects was the design of large-scale murals and decorative painting for the main public spaces of Disney’s $1 billion Tokyo resort, “Disney Seas.”  Fantastical scenes of the Greek god Poseidon, surfing roiling waves in a golden chariot drawn by leaping dolphins, frame a scene of tall ships plowing blue-green high seas.

“It’s really a very, very rewarding activity,” Greene said. “What you do with your hands, what you do with your mind. We’re keeping these crafts alive.”

The variety of projects is reflected at the studio, where about 150 artists work. The airy office has high ceilings and long halls with works-in-progress tacked up.  On one wall, artists add gold leaf to a mural that will be installed in the Empire State Building. On another, someone is replicating a Titian painting.

Other artists are printing trees and flowers to the green silk, painting sideways because the pieces of fabric were too long to hang from the ceiling. In a back room, an architectural conservation technician shifts back and forth between a picture on a computer screen and a one-foot cardboard square painted brown and covered with thin gold lines in a checkerboard style.            

Once the conservationist masters the design technique, this board will be sent (along with detailed instructions) to artists in the field who will replicate the technique on a mass scale. Greene explains that this meticulous planning and research is necessary because much of the restoration work they do has never been tried before. “On many [projects],” he said, “we have to reverse-engineer it.”

That was true of the Paramount Theater in Boston. The original murals on the wall had long since been painted white and covered over. All that was left of the first designs were a handful of blurry newspaper photos taken at odd angles.

One of the studio’s master artists was assigned to recreate the scene. He started by scouring the old clips, eventually determining that nine women were the focus of the works.  In the early twentieth century, he said, works in concert halls with nine women usually depicted the muses. His scene included embellishments based on the traditions of the time—he designed trees in an art deco style popular at the time and based some of the flowers on major works that had been completed in New York. 

Then, of course, there’s a bit of luck. When he ruffled through a magazine one day, he found a work by the original artist. That allowed him to modify his sketch to be as accurate as possible.  “I’m like Sherlock Holmes,” he said. “I look at the mud on the shoes, and I go from there.”

That, said Greene, is what makes the work so unique. “What we’re doing is special,” he said. “We’re putting back a piece of America.”


 Amanda Erickson is a reporter at the Washington Post where she writes about D.C.'s movers and shakers. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. When she isn't reporting, Amanda enjoys mastering new recipes, travelling on the cheap, and visiting second-hand bookstores.

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