Old Whalers’ Church Restores Historic Trompe L’Oeil in Sag Harbor

Old Whalers' Church Mural
Old Whalers' Church Mural, Photo: Stacy Dermont

You walk into the Old Whalers’ Church (First Presbyterian) eyes straight ahead and inevitably focus on the slightly concave apse—but surprise! There’s no recessed curve there, it only looks that way because of the optical illusion of the trompe l’oeil painting on the flat back wall.

The French phrase, “trick the eye,” refers to a technique of shading and perspective that creates an impression of depth and space. There’s no illusion, however, as to what Old Whalers’ is doing about the “distressed” 35’ x 25’ wall. They expect to complete its restoration in time for the church’s 170th anniversary in May. The plan is to return the mural to what it probably looked like in 1844. That was 14 bottom and 8 top layers ago, notes The Rev. Mark Phillips, who is thrilled that International Fine Arts Conservation Studios (IFACS) of Atlanta, GA, is undertaking the work.

Under the direction of IFACS CEO Geoffrey Steward, the project is proceeding with Mary Aldrich, Chief Conservator and Senior Project Manager, and Andrew Compton, Project Director, leading a small team of artists. So far, the Phase 1 assessment— analyzing pigments and glazes and uncovering samples of the original design—has turned up a surprise for Steward. Usually, on a mural like this, “the higher up you go, the more diminished the style.” Not here.

A chance meeting a few years ago at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown, MA between Steward and Whalers’ Church parishioners Nancy and David Cory (d. 2010) prompted the restoration. They were visiting the 1847 Greek Revival building, and the Corys noted the similarity of its trompe l’oeil ceiling to the design in Sag Harbor. In fact, Steward thinks that the Old Whalers mural has “more complex shading.” Only in the last couple of years, however, when Nancy began to raise the requisite funds and other work on the sanctuary had been completed did the restoration idea take hold. The difference between old and new is already apparent, to judge by a faux column on the right. Of eight petal-like “buttons” that run the vertical length of the column, the bottom one scraped back to the original hue shows crisp, bold color. Tracings have been made and one can only imagine how the rest will look when the intricate and interlocking spirals decorating all the columns, with both Corinthian and Doric capitals, are brought back to life.

Old Whalers Church art detail
Photo: Stacy Dermont

The painting phase will begin sometime around Easter and finish in five or six weeks. Significantly, the hand-shaded painting will not be done over the old mural but on canvas, to prevent cracks and to preserve “the longevity” of the design, Steward says. Old photos show what the wall looked like in various incarnations but the new wall, as authentically as possible, will restore what both Steward and Pastor Mark call “the magic” of the original trompe l’oeil. Wait til it’s done, Steward says, “it will seem to curve even more.”

The Old Whalers’ Church, a national historic landmark since 1994 for its trapezoidal Egyptian Revival architectural style, will now be enhanced by the restored sanctuary, a mix of Greek Revival and Egyptian Revival styles. (Forget about the steeple, which went down in the 1938 hurricane. A projected cost in 2004 was $3-4 million. Besides, the building looks more Egyptian without it.)

The mural, an “achievement of our congregation,” says Nancy Cory, is also a gift to the entire community, because Old Whalers’ “is not only our house of worship but also a home to all…a gathering place where all are welcome and where concerns, joys and sorrows are shared.” On May 16, for sure, it will be all joys.

Although May is the target date for completion of the mural, slight delays would not be surprising and donations to cover what might require additional time are always welcome. Those interested should call Nancy Cory at  631-725-4118.

Old Whalers Church art detail
Photo: Stacy Dermont

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