Restoring the scagliola walls and columns in a 100-year-old courthouse gives it a new life sentence.

The Allen County Courthouse in Fort Wayne, Ind., had almost served its term. The building, built in 1902, was well worn and its interior walls were cracked and dirty.

Around late 1994, one of the murals in the rotunda was ready to come off the wall. It was at this point some concerned citizens took interest and it was realized a restoration would have to be performed.

In September 1997, Hayles & Howe, of Baltimore, and Montpelier, of Bristol, U.K., along with Evergreen Painting Studios, took on the assignment of cleaning, repairing, restoring and replacing the missing interior of the courthouse, which was constructed mostly of scagliola, a marble-like finish made from plaster and pigments. The job not only included walls, but also 150 columns.

"The restoration basically amounts to the artwork in the building," explains Elaine Skoog, technical director of the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. "In addition to the murals, stained-glass skylights, stenciling and floors, the walls and ceilings fall under the catagory of art because of their scagliola surfaces."

David Hayles, technical director and owner of Hayles & Howe, received the assignment because he is considered by many the leading scagliola master throughout the world, having done restoration work for projects as diverse as Windsor Castle and Grand Central Station, in addition to palaces and estates.

His assistant, Angelique Bakalyar, supervises and performs much of the scagliola restoration.

"This is a very lost art and only about 24 people in the world know what they're doing," Bakalyar says. "If you are restoring something, you have to know the traditional techniques used by the original craftsmen and restore it the way they did it for it to be authentic. Nobody left recipes or techniques on how to fix and restore this material, so it's trial and error.

"When you deal with historic material and restoration, you want to deal with it in its original way. We could use epoxies and stains, but is putting plastic in plaster true restoration?"

Lost art

Scagliola is a marble-like material made from plaster, pigments and glue, and burnished to a shine, according to Hayles. He has spent the last 20 years researching this 16th century technique for making "plaster marble."

"Although it looks like marble, it is plaster," Bakalyar explains. "The Austrians, Bavarians and Italians will probably always feud over who started it. We suspect it was the Germans who did the work on the courthouse here because of the large German population in Fort Wayne."

The scagliola in the Allen County courthouse is what Bakalyar calls marezzo scagliola because European craftsmen migrated to the area west from New York, and when they did, they left their respective scagliola behind.

"We do know that the turn-of-the-century period brought a lot of immigrants to Fort Wayne," Skoog adds. "We also know that there are many Germans here and that the artisans among them brought their craft with them. Although we don't know exactly who the original craftsmen were, we do know that everything was done on the premises."

Work began on the first floor with the columns. The walls and columns in the building add up to about 40,000 square feet of scagliola in 24 different varieties and colors, the most of any in the world. The surface of the scagliola on the columns measures from about 1/8 inch to 1/16 inch thick.

"The scagliola is created on an oilcloth on a flat bench then lifted up on the cloth and "wrapped" around the column," Hayles says. "During setting, the cloth is peeled off, leaving the scagliola true and evenly curved."

On the third floor, all the scagliola walls required restoration. There was cracking, chipping and staining. Places where backing didn't stick to the first layer of scagliola, causing a pocket that may have been patched over time and then fell apart, also required attention.

"Since the building was once heated with coal, during the Depression era a restoration was attempted," Bakalyar explains. "They polished the columns with linseed oil, and over the years that smoking was allowed in the building, the cigarette smoke absorbed into the porous scagliola, mixed with the linseed oil, and created discoloration."

Stain damage has to be removed with heavy-grit wet and dry papers and water stones, and polished. If a surface is coming away from a wall, it has to be repinned.

"Every time you sand down a surface, you lose more and more of the original layer," Bakalyar adds. "For a building like this, you almost need a full-time maintenance crew of skilled people to baby these surfaces. Otherwise, in 100 years, you'll have another big job."

Do it right the second time

On some walls, it looks like previous attempts at restoration involved the use of a cleaning agent that treated the walls as though they were actual marble. Because the hard brushes and cleaning agents used produced bleaching and scratching, the trained eye can read the work done to the scagliola in the past.

"It's interesting that you can see the strokes of past workers on these surfaces," Bakalyar says. "You're seeing the stroke of a human hand from 60 years ago and you can tell if it was a skilled laborer, if they had a hangover, if it was Monday or Friday. To a trained observer, you can look at the surface and it really talks to you."

"The scagliola restoration looks wonderful," Skoog says. "David has brought such an awareness to that art form here, and in Midwestern America, we have such a quantity and variety of it that is very unique."

Hayles teaches the technique at West Dean College in Sussex, England, and has opened the eyes of Fort Wayne residents to the art of scagliola. Bakalyar says it takes a certain person to want to get into the trade, someone who is really patient and wants to deal with surfaces that are 4 to 5 inches from his face.

"People will ask, 'Why not use power tools?' to make the job easier," Bakalyar says. "The answer is because it wasn't made that way. It takes the earth millions of years to form a diamond or marble and we're doing the same thing on a smaller scale with our cutting and shaping and veining. Someone once said scagliola sounds like a disease .