The conservators at The Conservation Center had the rare privilege to conserve a mural in one of Chicago's historic buildings. The University Club of Chicago is a private social club that was founded in 1887 “by university graduates who wanted a special place where they could enjoy intellectual pursuits.” The Club’s current building was constructed in 1907-09 by renowned architectural firm Holabird and Roche, and with its distinct Neo-Gothic facade, it still stands out today amongst the buildings along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. For the interior spaces, the Club hired fellow member and Chicago artist Frederic Clay Bartlett (1873-1953) to design the interior decor of the club, which included such original artwork as Bartlett’s 56-panel mural on the ceiling of the Club’s Michigan Room.
The Michigan Room, one of the Club’s two largest rooms, was originally designed as a very large living room, which Bartlett intended to have a clubby, residential feel. Special Operations Director for the Club, Steve Bacigalupo, shares that the Michigan Room was designed to be a space where members would meet after work to enjoy a brandy or a cigar, play card games, and gather to network. They would discuss the breaking news of the day, simply read a paper or even take a nap. “The furnishings were heavy leather sofas, large leather wing chairs, hand carved oak tables with turned legs, bronze lamps with lion head feet, and fringed wool Persian carpets.” Of course this included Bartlett’s mural, with a theme certainly befitting the feel of the space. In his own words, Bartlett said of his mural,“I have designed 56 panels, representing a Gothic chase and feast. In the outer panels, there are Knights and ladies, pursuing game. In the center is the feast, with groups of musicians.”
After over 100 years since its creation, examination by The Center’s Senior Paintings Conservator Amber Schabdach showed that Bartlett’s paintings had various condition concerns expected of a mural that age. Overall, each of the 56 panels needed to be surface cleaned, while a select few showed evidence of delamination from the ceiling and needed to be appropriately reattached. Some panels had more extensive condition issues that required them to be temporarily removed from the ceiling and transported for treatment at The Center’s West Town laboratory, only a few miles away.
Although it may seem that the majority of panels would be receiving relatively straightforward treatments, there were a few areas that needed further consideration. As always before proceeding with surface cleaning, testing would be required for all 56 panels to ensure that the proper materials and techniques were being used. Additional testing would also be necessary for the select panels that exhibited small areas of delamination and would need to be reaffixed to the ceiling using proper conservation materials. However, the largest consideration with the treatment of these panels was that treatment would be happening insitu, which in this instance meant that the conservators would be working on the ceiling of the Michigan Room. Fortunately, the space was large enough to accommodate scissor lifts, which helped the conservation process to run both smoothly and safely.
For the select panels that needed to be temporarily deinstalled, treatment at The Center’s laboratory allowed for use of the most effective techniques. While these panels were also surface cleaned using the same materials as those treated insitu, additional treatments were necessary to address structural condition issues. The panels had delaminated from the ceiling to the extent that the canvases had become distorted and rippled. These particular panels needed to be flattened, using a combination of carefully applied heat, suction and weight techniques. To further ensure their stability, these canvases were lined to a prepared secondary panel using conservation adhesive. The additional panel would add support to the original canvas, keeping the painting in plane once it was reinstalled on the ceiling.
While this was an extensive project, there are both challenging, and rewarding aspects to a treatment of this size. As Amber shared, “Every individual mural panel presented a new challenge. The surface coatings varied, as it seems some were treated in the past and others were still in their original state. It was nice to treat them all at once in order to insure continuity with the finished images. In the end, the ceiling was returned to its former glory and we were honored to be part of this project.”
Today the Michigan Room is being used for innumerable member events, which according to Steve includes everything from “weddings, cabaret nights, business meetings, civic affair programs, author lunches, Halloween parties, and dances.” While the Club is not generally open to the public, it is not entirely inaccessible to non-members. “Members may of course invite their guests to almost all events, and many members sponsor guests to utilize the facilities.” If an opportunity arises to visit the University Club, keep in mind there is more of Bartlett’s work to see than just the Gothic Chase and Feast mural. Bartlett designed all the windows in the University Club. Steve shared, “In Cathedral Hall, Bartlett’s traditional Gothic windows were inspired by British and American colleges and universities. In the Library, he created simple roundels in clear glass working in the names of historical well-known American authors in lead. On the first and second floors, the roundels express classic Gothic design details, such as the sun and moon, sea creatures, gargoyles, angelic beings, seeded pomegranates, acorns, oak leaves and owls.” Bartlett’s attention to detail with the interior design of the University Club seems to have no limit. In fact, there are 76 Bartlett-designed roundels throughout the Clubhouse, and it is no coincidence that the Club’s address is 76 East Monroe. “Yes, he did that on purpose.”
Gray, Mary. A Guide to Chicago’s Murals. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.
“History” University Club of Chicago. <http://www.ucco.com>