Step into Old Whalers’ Church on Union Street in Sag Harbor when you get the chance and you’ll get to see history remade. The giant trompe l’oeil mural at the south end of the sanctuary has been restored to its original glory. Colors, details and perspectives have all been returned to how they originally appeared when the building was completed in 1844, aspects that have not been seen in their full splendor since the 1890s.
Old Whalers’ history recounts that the tromp l’oeil—which is French for “deceive the eye”—became part of architect Minard Lafever’s design for the church, a compromise to make up for the lack of funds to complete the project to his specifications. His original plans called for a sort of rotunda behind the altar, but when the church came up $7,000 short, it was decided to use a little deception instead. The mural is supposed to make the flat back wall behind the altar appear to curve out behind, while two pillars are depicted to match the two actual pillars on the altar.
In 1902, for unknown reasons, the mural was painted over with something else, and a subsequent attempt to restore the original painting in 1909 contained errors in color, scale and perspective.
Those problems had only increased over time, as Old Whalers’ pastor Rev. Mark Phillips explains.
“The last time it was repainted, the job was done by a company that mainly painted swimming pools,” he says with some chagrin. “Swimming pool green is not the most convincing color.”
With the restoration, Rev. Phillips notes, “the original color scheme is back. The detail is just phenomenal.” He seems fairly confident, however, that he will not be fooled to the extent that he winds up walking into the wall.
According to Rev. Phillips, the tromp l’oeil at Old Whalers’ is the only one he’s ever seen in the U.S., and the only other church that he knows of in our general region that has a tromp l’oeil is a Unitarian-Universalist parish in Kennebunk, Maine that has a tromp l’oeil ceiling.
The restoration at Old Whalers’ was done by International Fine Arts Conservation Studios (IFACS) of Atlanta, GA, headed by Geoffrey Steward, CEO. The first steps were taken last fall, when the team spent several days delicately scraping away layers of paint to reveal details of some of the original design elements, as well as to take samples for color analysis. During the month of June, scaffolding was up and the actual restoration took place. This work required a team of up to five IFACS artists, who stabilized and smoothed the wall before covering it with a canvas that also served as a brace.
All of this work was made possible by a small group of Old Whalers’ members who, explains Rev. Phillips, would rather their names not be mentioned. “This has been a project on the drawing board for at least 10 years,” he notes, “and it’s a great thing to finally see it completed.”
If you want to see the finished product, you should stop in at Old Whalers’, which will be open for tours on the first and third Saturdays and Sundays of July and August. Hours include Saturday 11 a.m.–1 p.m. and Sunday 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
The church is offering a free concert celebrating the completion of its tromp l’oeil restoration this Sunday, June 29 at 5 p.m. Featured performers include tenor Michael Bodnyk and Susan Vinski. Old Whalers’ Church is located at 44 Union Street in Sag Harbor. oldwhalerschurch.org