Restoration of the 25,000 sq. ft. of wall and ceiling paintings in the seven-corridor system known as the Brumidi Corridors on the first floor of the U.S. Senate engaged the Cunningham-Adams team from 1991 to 2017.
Painted by Constantino Brumidi and a team of European painters between 1857 and 1859 (with additions continuing through the ‘70’s), the decoration is dominated by multiple trompe l’oeil polychrome panels. The walls are painted to look as if they were divided into panels surrounded by three-dimensional carved stone moldings with colored inlays of red and turquoise. The interiors of the trompe l’oeil panels are richly ornamented in extraordinary variety including trompe l’oeil rinceaux and candelabra appointed with a dazzling array of detail including plants, flowers, birds, small mammals, and insects. A variety of painting materials were used to execute the paint layer, including the oil-casein, protein tempera in emulsion with oil, oil on its own, resinous binding media, along with calcium carbonate washes and other combinations of some of these. The ceilings, whose decorations echo those of the walls but with some added ornamental themes at the groins, were executed throughout in water-soluble tempera.
Our initial year-long study of the murals in 1990 indicated that the paintings were intact but buried under up to six layers of overpaint that had been applied in previous restoration efforts, often to camouflage past damage in the paint layer. Due to the porous quality of the original surface, the safest way to remove the overpaint covering it was to pare it off with a scalpel layer by layer, inch by inch.
Upon exposure of the original, we repaired any physical or aesthetic damage we found. Flaking and powdering paint was readhered to the surfaces; scratches, holes and gouges were repaired. Compensation for pictorial loss and distortion was done in delicate water colors to match the original. Before addressing the surfaces however, we identified and mapped areas of failure in the underlying plaster and stabilized them with an infusion technique we developed specifically for the plaster at the Capitol. The technique allows continuous infusion of consolidant into the plaster at controllable pressure over an indefinite period and has produced excellent results.
Recovery of the artistic elegance and high technical skill of the original art work in the Brumidi Corridors introduced a monumental change in the appearance of the public spaces on the ground floor of the Senate Wing. The on-going project also presented a unique educational experience for the staff and visitors to the Capitol over the two and a half decades as it unfolded.