Good Life

Living Local: Penn State Old Main frescoes

CDT photo

Standing tall on the University Park campus, Old Main is more than the administrative nerve center of Penn State.

It’s also an art gallery — with a single, enormous work.

Newcomers to the area may not realize that, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, anyone can walk into the historic building’s lobby, ascend the main steps and take in a famous local example of public art.

The Land-Grant Frescoes adorn the staircase wall, depicting agricultural and historical scenes linked to the university, all centered by a towering portrait of Abraham Lincoln. As the only one of its kind painted at an American university by an American artist, the murals are looking better than they have in decades, thanks to a meticulous 2-year restoration project completed last spring.

The project, funded by a $1.5 million anonymous donation and done by a crew led by Harrisburg-based Albert Michaels Conservation in conjunction with Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant, repaired cracking, removed dirt and contaminants and touched up paint across the 1,300 square feet of artwork.

More than 75 years ago, the frescoes’ story began. In the 1930s, a trio of Penn State art and architectural professors — Harold E. Dickson, J. Burn Helme and Frances E. Hyslop — came up with the idea for a mural chronicling the founding of the university and land-grant education.

Backed by a financial gift by the Class of 1932, the professors commissioned Henry Varnum Poor, an architect, painter and muralist living in Rockland County, N.Y., to create a mural on the north wall of the Old Main staircase. By then, Poor had built a reputation as a fresco master after painting several murals in Washington, D.C., public buildings and elsewhere.

Poor began in 1939 with sketches and started painting the next year. Every morning, after his daughter, Anne, applied fresh plaster, Poor painted on the wet surface in true fresco fashion so that the pigment dried into the wall.

After the mural was finished that year to critical acclaim, the senior, junior and sophomore classes in 1941 voted to sponsor funds for continuing the mural on the east and west walls. But World War II put the plan on hold.

When peace returned, so did Poor. In November 1948, he began the other murals, adding portions to reflect Penn State’s post-war activities and services and finishing in eight months.

Today, Poor’s work — with Lincoln front and center as the signer of the Morrill Act of 1862 that started land-grant colleges — is hailed as an American art masterpiece. Improved climate control measures adopted in Old Main as part of the restoration should help preserve the rejuvenated frescoes and impress visitors for decades to come.