Articles from the September 1997 Unification News

Restoration of Manhattan Center ‘Opera House’ Ceiling

by Richard L. Lewis-NYC

The Holy Wedding of True Parents’ youngest sons on September 6 (see front page story) marked the official opening of the old Opera House in its new incarnation as the Hammerstein Ballroom of the Manhattan Center.

For over a decade this space has been fit for only storage but, in a remarkably short space of time, the space has been transformed. While the renovation is by no means complete-it is not ready to resume its career as an Opera House yet-it is well on its way and was a glorious venue for both the blessing and the banquet.

Perhaps the most startling transformation on public display for the first time at the Wedding was the grand mural on the ceiling. When the hall was first built it had a beautiful, classical mural painted on the ceiling but this had deteriorated almost completely over the years. The previous owners of the building (now owned by HSA-UWC and leased to Manhattan Center Studios) had installed a drop ceiling at the level of the third balcony to save on heating and cooling expenses and its supports pierced the mural and further damaged it.

With the false ceiling removed the full extent of the ruin became apparent-little of the original ornate plaster work remained and only a faded remnant of the painting. Luckily, sufficient had survived the ravages of time to at least get an idea of what was there originally.

The first plan for the restoration of the ceiling came to an abrupt halt last autumn when the contractor came up with a quote of $1,400,000 to plaster and $265,000 to paint with a time frame of two years. The deadline for completion, however, was April 1997-just seven months away so it became clear that if the ceiling restoration was to be done at all it would have to be in-house.

Plastering

The first step that had to be accomplished was the plaster work-the 60 by 40 foot ornate surrounding oval as well as the background to receive the painted mural.

Gregorio Villafana-temporarily relinquishing his position as telecommunications manager for MC-took responsibility for this aspect of the project as he had experience from the restoration of the New Yorker Hotel lobby and Grand Ballroom. In an interview with the Unification News he went over what was involved in this aerial undertaking.

One of the first problems he faced in pulling together a team was the paucity of talent-such baroque plaster work being a lost art in the city. Much to his surprise, all of those with the desired skills who answered his advertisements were from South America where ornate plaster is till a thriving industry, apparently. Eventually a team of sixteen men was assembled and the project began.

Next was how to get at the ceiling.

Its loft of over 150 feet above the floor-which had mainly been removed, anyway, by other works-in-progress-made scaffolding impracticable. The solution was a platform in five sections that was hoisted on steel cables passing through the ceiling. In some cases, the holes drilled for the old false ceiling could be used, in others, new holes had to be drilled to get at the steel skeleton of the building.

Even though the inevitable complications made it take six weeks longer than planned to get the work platform up there, they stuck to the same schedule and just worked faster. For all this, Gregorio was happy to report that no major accidents befell them.

The result was, practically speaking, a whole new work floor that stretched from wall to wall just below the ceiling.

Much of the complicated moldings-especially the four large scrolls-were cast by Monumental Construction in Washington DC whose proprietor, a church supporter, deferred other customers to fit in with their schedule. Much valuable advice also came from this source. Smaller molds were created in-house.

Bit by bit the moldings-hollowed to make them lighter-were cemented into place and, in the period of October through May, the work was completed.

As Gregorio noted, the ceiling is just the most visible and dramatic part of the restoration work being done and that many other ‘minor miracles’ were being accomplished.

Time being of the essence, as the plastering proceeded the painters were right behind them finishing off the great frame of the mural in gold, green and cream.

While all this was going on, the mural itself was being prepared.

The Mural

The artist for the mural was Alistair Farrant whose regular role at MC is that of audio editor.

He recalled, in an interview, being peripherally involved with the mural back in 1980 when Jan Parker, Watanabe and Carlo Zacherelli-artists of renown in the Unification community-arrived from Europe to attempt the task. While they accomplished much-their great paintings decorated the World Mission Center for years-somehow the mural itself was never started. When Alistair-renowned in Manhattan Center circles for painting sensational stage backdrops-was approached last year with the opportunity to accomplish this long-delayed project, he had mixed emotions about taking on such an monumental task. Eventually, however, his heartistic sense of Father’s original purpose for the building won out and he took on the task in July of last year.

While he was waiting for the working platform to be constructed, he embarked on two months of research. One thing he tried to track down was the name of the original artist-to no avail-and a large swath of the original that had been removed years ago probably as a keepsake-also to no avail. One thing he did have was a faded, old newspaper photo of the ceiling which, at least, gave a him an idea of the original composition.

Examination of blow-ups of this newspaper photo revealed, after much confusion, that the original theme was that of a heavenly orchestra tuning up just before cherubs closed the curtains on this opening to the sky-a pre-show moment.

Alistair also had great hopes in the few remaining fragments of the original-three cherubs and a part of the false balcony were still in place.

One major decision had to be made early-paint onto the ceiling in the style of Michelangelo or, as was eventually settled on, to paint onto canvas and then "wallpaper" the ceiling with it.

While the work space looks like a perfect oval, it is not. So, with the platform in place, Alistair started tracing the ceiling onto acetate to get the exact shape. He bemoaned the fact that he was actually not able to get all of the original as some of it got pulled down by a work team before he was able to get to it.

Eventually the ellipse-54’ long by 36’ wide-was transferred from the acetate onto the canvas-one half at a time-in an empty space that used to be a Manufactures Hanover bank branch.

Thus the work began on eighteen canvases each 18 by 6 foot.

The basic ideas for the work were captured in sketches of the whole and the details with friends acting as models to get the poses correct-which generated some competition as everyone wanted to be "immortalized" on the ceiling.

A problem that Alistair encountered at this early state was that the original work had not got the perspective of the false balcony correct. Should he retain this flaw in the original or correct it? With the decision to do it right came an unexpected week of pouring over math books to figure out the correct perspective. In the new version, all the vertical lines in the false balcony are actually all on rays emanating from the center of the ellipse.

Draping the canvases over pipes, Alistair next projected his drawings onto the canvas and traced the outlines onto the canvas.

With the drawings now on them, the canvases were laid out on the floor of the ballroom and, with assistant Tomohino Torikai, he started to "slop on" gallons of paint with golf club-like paint brushes. First on was the sky and clouds followed by the figures. The New York Times sent a photographer who captured this stage of the project on film.

Naturally there were challenges, one being that others needed to use the ballroom. The canvases had to be removed back to hang on pipes until the space was free again. Alistair explained this need for mobility was one of the reasons why the work was done in quick-drying, flexible acrylic paint rather than in oils. This choice, however, gave rise to another problem: while oil paint stays the same color as it dries, acrylic gets darker and getting the right look became a problem-as did painting out the seams once the canvas was in place.

With the canvases completed, the next step was to call in professional wallpaper hangers to glue them up on the ceiling. Alistair testified to their skill noting that the glue that had to be used was quick drying and very, very strong. Attempting to remove it after even a few minutes would take the plaster along with it-as happened when a cable being used by a construction rigger snagged on the canvas and pulled a dinner plate-sized chunk of the plaster away. The first piece up was the most tricky-the huge canvas had to be positioned perfectly-and the two-man crew got it right the first time-they were "worth every penny" as Alistair put it.

Once it was up it was possible to see it in its proper perspective from the main floor with all its strengths and weaknesses. The seams were still a problem and some figures had to be reworked. With the work floor now removed, the only way to get at the mural was at the end of an extended cherry picker. This, as Alistair recalled, had a delightful habit of jerking downwards a few inches ever so often, usually when he was busy applying paint.

Eventually, the work was all finished-he thought. The evening before the Holy Wedding Father was given a tour of the building to see the progress of the renovations. He was very impressed by the mural but thought, as a finishing touch, the expanse of sky in the center should be adorned with the sun, moon and twelve stars representing the gates of heaven. Practical as ever, Louise Honey of the MC staff shot off a question: "You want a crescent moon or a full moon?" It is to be a full one apparently.

For those who missed the Wedding it is possible to get a good overview of the progress of the Opera House-oops, the Hammerstein Ballroom-on the MC web page at: www.mcstudios.com.

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