Artwork discovered under paint layers

Embassy Theatre invests in testing

LEWISTOWN — A large mural painted in 1932 by Ivan Leeper was revealed under layers of paint on a wall in the Embassy Theatre this week.

For three days, a team of art conservators from Evergreen Architectural Arts conducted a Historic Finishes Study inside the South Main Street building that has been under restoration for many years.

“The intent of the study is to determine how the theatre was originally decorated, how it changed through time, and to expose interesting artwork that may have been painted over decades ago,” Paul T. Fagley, president of Friends of the Embassy Theatre, said.

This week, about 120 paint samples were taken by the art conservators, and several “exposure windows” were created. Most of these were in the area of artwork that was revealed.

“While the Friends knew that there was something there, as evidenced from period Sentinel articles and indications in the paint, they did not know the extent of the artwork,” Fagley said.

“While not fully revealed, enough has been exposed to show the beautiful decorative painting. From the articles, we know that it was painted in 1932 by Ivan Leeper, the father of local sign painter and artist John Leeper. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, it was painted over in 1937,” he said.

The portion of the mural that was exposed by the art conservators shows what Fagley termed a “colonial dame,” as well as a sunburst. The design was mentioned in old newspaper articles, Fagley said, adding that the building’s original design was colonial in style, and the well-known art deco decor was added later in order to keep up with popular decorating styles.

Fagley said the walls were painted in 1932, 1937, touched up in 1941-42, completely repainted in 1949 and, the remaining outermost layer was painted in 1981-82. Further inspection of the paint samples taken during the study will reveal if the walls were painted in any other years, Fagley said.

The conservators will also use the paint samples they collected to create a color chart that can be used to find the correct colors when the time comes for painting the walls. “In general, the color scheme will be from 1927,” Fagley said.

While the intent of the restoration project is to take the building back to its 1927 origins, the 1930s mural will remain exposed, Fagley said. “I can imagine the painting being restored or replicated.”

He said the art conservators recommended that a varnish be applied to the mural to seal and preserve the original, allowing a replica to be painted on top.

Fagley said the opposite wall may have had a similar mural at one time, but a leak in the roof resulted in water damage that washed the paint from the wall.

Also, there are similar sunburst paintings in the second floor of the building, Fagley said. At least one of them will be left in the final restoration.

Leeper’s paintings will be included in the restoration because “They are a page in the history of the Embassy. We’re restoring the Embassy back to 1927, but it will include elements that were added at later times because they are part of the history of the building,” Fagley said.

Meanwhile, the Friends are continuing to pursue grants to get the building “lawn chair ready,” for people to be able come in and watch movies or performances while the restoration continues.

The Historic Finishes Study was funded in part by a grant from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.