The restored Grand Lobby and new mosaic floor.
In Stockton, Calif., a turning point in downtown revitalization efforts was reached with the reopening of the former Fox Theater, a movie palace built in 1930. Renamed in honor of Bob Hope, the 2,000-seat theater reopened on its 75th anniversary after an $8.5-million renovation that restored the interior décor to its original appearance and reconfigured the production facilities for touring live theater.

The theater had been saved from demolition in the '70s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to Stockton architect Tom Bowe, of Wendell Matthias Bowe, "the original splendor had been diminished by years of poor maintenance, water damage, inappropriate paint jobs and ill-thought modernizations."

Jeff Greene, renowned as an expert in decoration of historic theaters, encouraged the architects to investigate the historic appearance of the theater, and made recommendations for restoration of the ornate plasterwork and decorative painting. As president of EverGreene Painting Studios Inc., of New York and Chicago, since 1978, Greene has been involved with the restoration of 150 theaters across the U.S. He is also an active board member and sponsor of the League of Historic American Theaters, the leading advocacy and education organization for the preservation and operation of historic theaters.

Random Ashlar stucco walls were recreated in three-coat plaster to match the original texture and colors. The ceiling was completely repainted to match original finishes. The loggia box next to the proscenium has a landscape mural organ screen replicated from the original. The original embroidered and appliquéd brocade panel was mended and preserved.

Understanding the historic finishes

Greene recognized the Fox as one of the West Coast theaters decorated by Anthony Heinsbergen, an outstanding theater designer of the period.

"The Fox is a fantasy movie palace drawing on Spanish Renaissance and Baroque palace architecture" says Greene. "Clearly, the colors had shifted away from the 1930s palette. Metallic finishes were tarnished so that no one could see how it was supposed to look. Our first task was to document and understand the original design intent."

Conservators and artists on EverGreene's staff prepared a Historic Finishes Study by taking paint samples from representative elements and examining them under a high-power microscope to identify the original colors and glazes, matched to standard Munsell color designations. On site, the team made exposure windows by removing layers of overpaint in numerous locations to reveal patterns of stenciling, polychromy, glazing and gilding. EverGreene artists hand-mixed color chips of paints, glazes and metal leaf to show the original finishes on a color board. The findings of the on-site investigation and lab work were presented in an illustrated report to Wenell Matthias Bowe and the City of Stockton, and used to win support for an accurate restoration.

The EverGreene crew.

Reconstructing plasterwork

The textured stucco walls and ceilings were identified as an acoustical plaster containing asbestos. The '20s and '30s were a period of rapid experimentation with acoustical wall and ceiling materials for movie theaters, churches and auditorium spaces. State environmental regulations for hazardous materials required complete removal of the asbestos-containing plaster. Since the priority was to preserve the theater, replication of the specialty plaster finishes after demolition and abatement by the general contractor was a major part of the scope of work.

EverGreene Painting Studios was the successful bidder for the plasterwork and decorative painting restoration. In putting together its crew, EverGreene drew on the expertise of its veteran decorative painters, ornamental plasterers, painting conservators and mural artists experienced in theaters and other landmark buildings, such as the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, Calif.; the Elsinore Theater in Salem, Ore.; the Fox Theater in San Jose, Calif.; the Illinois State Capitol and others.

Beams and ornamental plaster moldings, brackets, cornices and frames were preserved and all damage, such as cracks and missing sections, were repaired by EverGreene plasterers. During the demolition phase, asbestos containing plaster was removed from flat areas of the ceiling between beams. To save the owner money, the company suggested using drywall on the flat areas, which was then given a sprayed-on stucco texture to match the original appearance, using paint with different sizes of Perlite mixed in and knocked down with trowels.

The company's ornamental plasterers reconstructed all of the three-coat stucco walls. The architect instructed them to make the score lines of the Ashlar pattern level all around the theater, a tricky feat since the floors, door openings and ceilings were at different heights around the auditorium.

"We tried using a laser leveling device to lay out lines so it wouldn't look uneven or crooked from a distance, but we found that light bounced back from doorways and projecting elements," says foreman Sherry Thomas. "So we reverted to the low-tech method of water levels, using a 20-foot-long plastic tube held by two people."

To achieve a truly random pattern of Ashlar in three colors (a neutral and two different tints), three different artisans went to work independently to apply topcoats.

Putting back polychromy, wood-graining and gilding on the massive ceiling brackets.

Decorative painting restoration

The reinstatement of the historic color palette and decorative painting scheme began with a series of mockups by EverGreene painters in representative locations such as the proscenium arch, organ grille frames and balcony fascia. Once the colors were tweaked to everyone's satisfaction, the crew set to work. The ceiling, brackets and cornices received a wood-grained finish, stenciling on beams, polychromy on relief patterns, and gilded highlights at edges and lines. The ornate patterns of the proscenium arch and columns glow with polychromy, glazing and gilding. Dutch metal composition leaf, supplied by Sepp Leaf, of New York, was applied on pin lines and long runs. Flash-gilding of wood-grained and relief surfaces were done with non-tarnishing metallic paints.

Original hand-painted figurative decoration above the proscenium with images of horses was preserved by cleaning and conservation treatment. The starry sky above the proscenium was repainted to its original base color with multicolored stenciled stars. In the arches below the cornice, shields were hand painted over the plaster walls to replicate the original designs.

The large ornamental frames flanking proscenium enclose organ pipes. The original burlap screens painted with landscape scenes were decayed. They were salvaged and sent to EverGreene's studio in New York, where artists made tracings and repainted the scenes in oil paints on fire-rated fiberglass mesh.

The balcony fascia is decorated by elaborate stenciled panels, which were preserved. Some ornamental plaster with decorative patterns contained asbestos, and was able to be preserved by plaster consolidation techniques and encapsulation of asbestos with a special solution.

The grand lobby

Prior to restoration, the lobby had an unappealing mix of inappropriate colors, over-painted patterns and tarnished finishes. The original color palette and finishes were reinstated, restoring the correct balance of contrasts, pattern and highlights.

Among the most noticeable improvements are coats-of-arms between the brackets above the cornice, which were repainted by EverGreene artists based on exposure windows. Decorative plaster columns and pilasters received a rag roll glaze on shafts and metal leaf on the lattice pattern.

The centerpiece of the lobby floor is a mosaic designed by EverGreene artists in New York, a separate project that was selected in a Public Art competition by the City of Stockton. The design is in a Baroque theatrical style, featuring a sea god and water, evoking Stockton's history as an inland port. The 12-feet-by-25-feet marble mosaic was fabricated by Mosaika, of Montreal.

Foreman Sherry Thomas has supervised many of EverGreene's most demanding and large-scale decorative painting restoration projects over her 12 years with the company, among them the Allen County Courthouse in Fort Wayne, Ind., Chicago Lyric Opera, Murat Theater in Indianapolis, and the Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J. Greene remarked that "Sherry is not only an expert decorative painter, she manages large projects very effectively to meet schedules, stay within budget and deliver outstanding results. She has a gift for motivating crews to work together harmoniously, and she has a great track record in mentoring individual artisans who want to learn the trade and grow with EverGreene."