Trinity Church

Restoring the Central Tower

Trinity Church - Boston

Trinity Church, built in 1877 is a National Historic Landmark that has been listed as one of the most significant buildings in the country and annually draws over 100,000 visitors from around the world to Copley Square in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts.   It's listed #2 on PBS series 10 Buildings that Changed America.

HH Richardson, the architect for Trinity church established a new American architecture style. Because Richardson interpreted the Romanesque Revival style in such a distinctive way, it soon became known as Richardsonian Romanesque.  The floor plan of the church is in the shape of a cross and the church’s central tower stands 211 feet tall and the interior murals cover over 21,500 square feet.

Trinity Church Boston

In 2004-2005, a preservation campaign to conserve and restore the John La Farge murals and decorative paint finishes that embellish the central tower of Trinity Church in the City of Boston began. The work was undertaken as a collaborative effort between the Gianfranco Pocobene Studio, Inc. and the John Canning & Co. The project was managed by John Canning & Co. while treatment procedures and aesthetic considerations were directed by Gianfranco Pocobene Studio. In addition to Project Management, Canning also restored and reconstructed the decoration surrounding the murals.  The team of conservators and decorative paint crews who carried out the project began their work the last week of August 2004 and completed treatment activities by mid May 2005. Working closely with Trinity Church, the project was overseen by the Jean Carroon of the architectural firm Goody Clancy & Associates while the overall project management was conducted by Leggatt McCall Properties LLC.

Trinity Church Boston
Trinity Church Boston

Here we see some of the lettering work in progress after the gold leafing had already been completed for the restoration project and some of the in-painting being done. 

The primary goals of the project were as follows:

1)  To stabilize and preserve the original encaustic mural paintings and distemper ceiling decorations. The re-attachment of flaking and unstable paint layers was accomplished by the conservators by means of a variety of adhesives and consolidants that are described in detail in the technical sections of our final report.

2)  Surface Clean all original paint surfaces to remove accumulations of dust, grime, and soot which obscured the murals. This was performed by conservators both with aqueous and solvent cleaning solutions. Of special note here is the remarkable improvement in the appearance of murals which exceeded our expectations at the beginning of the project.

3)  Reinstate original decorative design layers and colors that had been altered during previous restorations. Through careful investigation of the paint surfaces and analytical research the decorative painters were able to repaint previously restored surfaces and approximate the original appearance of these surfaces.

Trinity Church Boston

Access to the tower was accomplished with a unique scaffold design enabling church activities to continue with minimal visual disruption. Only four eight-inch steel columns were necessary to carry the entire eighty-five-foot-high system. Conventional pipe framed scaffold sitting atop a cantilevered aluminum spec frame platform was erected on a temporary structural steel base tower. The use of only four visible supporting columns was made possible by the forethought of coordinating new permanent steel framing in the restoration of the undercroft to receive the temporary loading.

John Canning & Co. provided design assist services, including finish investigations and consultation services for the fine and decorative artwork in the church’s Central Tower, which features the original artwork designed and executed by John LaFarge. Our scope of work included plaster repair & consolidation; decorative painting & finishes, color matching and in-painting; gilding; as well as developing conservation cleaning agents and methodology for the conservation of La Farge’s encaustic murals that fully embraced every surface.  Where the decorative artwork was beyond conservation, we reinstated it with stenciling, striping, lettering, and gold leafing.

Trinity Church Boston

Most of the fine art murals were found to be in excellent state of preservation. During our work, the fine art murals were stabilized as necessary and cleaned to remove heavy layers of grime and soot. In-painting was done only where loss needed to be reintegrated or where old retouchings had discolored. Original surfaces were pre­served intact wherever possible.

Throughout the project, we were frequently amazed by the inven­tiveness and imagination used by La Farge and his fellow artists to decorate work the interior walls of the tower. It was apparent when viewed at arm’s length, as compared to viewed from the Sanctuary floor, that the original work was executed by artists unrestricted by conventional decorative techniques and methodology.

Over the last 146 years, few people have had the good fortune to see these works up close and we consider ourselves privileged to have done what we can to preserve them for the future. We thank Trinity Church for the opportunity to have played a part in this extraordinary and wondrous project.

Trinity Church Boston-striping

Striping by our artists is never done with masking; instead, our trained highly skilled artists can produce perfect lines with a straight edge and lining brushes, as you see here.

“Trinity is one of the great places in America, and probably more than any other building, aside from the White House, it has stood the test of time.”

— Richard Moe, President, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Trinity Church Boston - Before
Trinity Church Boston - After

During the study and execution of our work, we found that a significant color change was made to the red color of the walls during the 1956-57 restoration. The red chosen for their restoration was a darker, cooler hue than the original color and this, combined with the effects of time, resulted in the opaque maroon background to the mural decoration. It was considered a high priority of this restoration to reinstate La Farge’s original terracotta colored walls. This was done with casein paint, chosen to be sympathetic to the original materials used by La Farge.

Trinity Church Boston

A second significant adjustment made during this campaign was to the great inscription band below the relief cornice. During the 2004-05 restoration project, we determined that the appearance of the band had been misinterpreted in 1956-57 and was mistakenly presented to include a floral/vine pattern (a first design abandoned by La Farge). Based on physical and photographic archival evidence, the inscription was reinstated with red letters over a plain gilded background. The decision to do this would have been much more difficult had our predecessors not placed a protective panel over remaining original paint surfaces.  During the restoration a Masonite panel was discovered that the restoration team from the 1950s left. This protective panel kept the original decorative surface from 1877 fully intact. This panel also contained a time capsule with a letter from the restoration team.  This area was stabilized and the panel put back leaving the original decorative surface there for future reference along with the original time capsule, with an additional letter from the latest restoration team.

Tower Section Restoration Team:

Leggat McCall Properties LLC, Project Management, Boston, MA
Good Clancy & Associates Architects, Inc., Boston, MA
John Canning & Co., Cheshire, CT
Gianfranco Pocobene Studio, Inc., Malden, MA
Serpentino Stained & Leaded Glass, Inc., Needham, MA
Cummings Stained Glass Studios, Inc., North Adams, MA
Marr Scaffolding, South Boston, MA
J&M Brown Company, Inc., Jamaica Plain, MA
Shawmut Design & Construction, Boston, MA