Assembly restoration preserves chamber’s beauty

By: - October 27, 2020 6:30 am
The state Assembly’s ceiling restoration project will finish this week. From left to right, Bridget Kiefer, Jeff LaMay, Robin Zentner and Mike Bath. The temporary “dance floor” is 30 feet above the room’s actual floor, creating a fairytale ballroom. (Photo by Jay Rath)

The state Assembly’s ceiling restoration project will finish this week. From left to right, Bridget Kiefer, Jeff LaMay, Robin Zentner and Mike Bath. The temporary “dance floor” is 30 feet above the room’s actual floor, creating a fairytale ballroom. (Photo by Jay Rath)

Though the Wisconsin Assembly hasn’t met since April 14, a lot of hard, detailed work has been taking place in its State Capitol chamber. After years of planning and months of work, restoration of the Assembly’s beaux arts ceiling will be completed this week, on time and under budget.

“To bring it back to what it was before” has been fun and tedious and rewarding, all at the same time, says Jeff LaMay, the Capitol’s decorative painter. “Everything at the Capitol is high-level decorative art.”

After years of “bubble gum and duct tape” repair, the Assembly Chamber ceiling restoration project was slated for the summer of 2018, at a cost of $465,000. But contractor bids were unacceptable. Hands-on work finally began in mid-April, and is scheduled to be complete Oct. 30. Despite the delay, final cost will be $400,000.

“This is well under the original project budget,” notes Robin Zentner, the Department of Administration’s director of the Bureau of Building Management.

After retiring “about 10 years ago,” Mike Bath was called in to head up the project.

He started at the Capitol as its decorative painter in 1984. The Mayville native had no formal art training. 

“I came with the skills and that’s all,” he says. “I had 20 some years in the painting trade I learned from my best friend, who is 103 years old. And he taught me a lot about stenciling and color matching. I just loved the trade.”

Says Zentner, “Calling Jeff and Mike painters doesn’t do them justice. They’re really artists.”

Tools and palette; a variety of materials were used, including artists acrylic.
Tools and palette; a variety of materials were used, including artists acrylic. (Photo by Jay Rath)

To get at the ceiling, a massive system of truss work was put together inside the Assembly, reaching 30 feet above the floor. On its top a rock-solid surface was created for rolling towers and workers. They affectionately refer to it as “the dance floor,” and there’s less irony in the term than you might think.

In staging the working area, a fairytale ballroom was created, with massive, shallow arches, vertically intimate yet horizontally expansive. Overhead, decorative panels and stained glass frame a leaded glass skylight. Details impossible to see from the Assembly floor are revealed – and sometimes reviled. Cracked plaster, for example.

The current Capitol building was built between 1906 and 1917. Despite $158 million in restoration and renovation from1988 to 2002, a lot can happen to any home in 103 years. 

Regular cracked plaster is bad enough. Plaster that’s delaminating is worse. The original plaster in 24 panels surrounding the skylight was applied in three layers. Those layers have begun separating. Fine art painted on the topmost “smooth layer” has been coming down in flakes for a long time.

“We’d actually send Jeff up on a lift to glue them back in place and touch them up so the ceiling continued to look good,” recalls Bath. “We knew that they had never been touched in 50 years. It justified a restoration.”

Assessment of the ceiling took place before the project even started. Then, “We went along and scraped every surface you see in the arches and everything,” says Bath. “There were a lot of chips,” he says. 

It looked “shotgunned,” Bath says, laughing, “because the paint – it’s been painted a few times but it’s never been totally scraped.”

Gold leaf was reapplied. Some pieces of the skylight had to be replaced. Matching the glass was a chore and required a specialist. 

The 24 panels framing the skylight were a special challenge. Wooden lathe had to be replaced with metal, and three new layers of plaster applied by hand. Planning was extensive, but a time crunch was always anticipated as part of working around legislative scheduling. A big shortcut was provided by the original artisans.

Mike Bath headshot
Mike Bath (credit: Wisconsin Department of Administration)

“I’m pretty attached to the [building’s] archives — things that are left from 100 years ago,” says Bath.  “I found some of the materials that were used to put the surface on.” Five years ago Bath and his team started to make copies of the stencils used to create designs on the panels. 

“It’s called a pounce pattern,” he recalls. “It’s a different way of transferring images. It’s a big piece of paper with all of these little pinholes in it.” Dark powder is padded against the stencil, leaving thin lines of pinpricks on the chosen surface. Five stencils were needed for each panel.

LaMay did the color-matching and practiced on mockups, using a variety of materials including acrylic art paints. “Jeff is the main painter,” says Bath. “He’s the man with all the skills.”

Natural light is usually a friend to the artist, but focused through a skylight it changed throughout the day and throughout the months. That presented a challenge.

“The hardest part is to do it 24 times,” says LaMay of the panels. “It sounds easy but it’s not easy.” Hand-plastered and hand-painted, each original panel was a little different. Happily, creating replicas allowed LaMay “to add a little of my flair to it,” though no one will be able to tell from the floor of the Assembly. 

He promises, “When the legislators show back up it will be exactly the way it was.”

Others decorative painters on the team include: Doris Diaz, who usually works at the governor’s residence, and Bridget Kiefer. And yes, they did it all wearing face masks.

The ongoing public health crisis makes it unlikely that the team will celebrate their accomplishment, though they may get together sometime. Meanwhile, one more task remains. From his work throughout the Capitol, working close-up on decorative art, LaMay knows that their 1910s predecessors sometimes left signatures in places invisible to the public.

Once the ceiling is done, “We have to find a place where we can sign it,” he quips.

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Jay Rath
Jay Rath

Besides The Wisconsin Examiner, writer-cartoonist Jay Rath has contributed to Animato!, Cartoonist PROfiles and Nemo: The Classic Comics Library magazines. An early and longtime contributor to The Onion, for more than 20 years he taught cartooning and animation to young people through the University of Wisconsin School of Education-Extension.