March 12, 2010

Peeling into Maine's pastOld homes across the state may yield hidden treasures. hidden treasures.

RAY ROUTHIER

— By

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Mike and Carole Hicks with murals done by Rufus Porter in the Winthrop apartment they are renovating.

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Murals by Rufus Porter, a mural painter from New England in the early 1900's. These murals were found by Mike and Carole Hicks when they were renovating their Winthrop apartment.

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Staff Writer

Mike Hicks was ripping off old wallpaper at a Winthrop apartment building he owns in early January when he began to suspect he'd find something interesting.

Under the wallpaper he found some plywood affixed to the wall. The wall was in pretty good shape, so what was the plywood for?

When Hicks pried the plywood from the wall, he found two colorful and highly-detailed murals, which he later learned were probably more than 170 years old.

One is a pastoral scene with rolling green hills, trees, a gentleman in a top hat, some birds and a picket fence. The other is a harbor scene with blue-green water, distant islands, ships with bright red flags and another gentleman in a top hat.

Hicks contacted the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, which sent experts to see the murals. The conclusion: They were probably the work of Porter, a popular Maine wall mural painter of the early 1800s.

''I was very excited to find something like this that's part of history,'' said Hicks, who bought the 1803 building in 2006. ''I'm glad somebody put plywood over the murals to protect them.''

Hicks' experience proves that you never know what sort of hidden treasure you might find in an old house. Over the years, most old homes get renovated and expanded to make them livable for each owner. And those renovations often mean new wallpaper, paint, drywall or ceilings that might cover up some historically interesting feature of the house.

So homeowners doing work in an old house might want to be aware of that, take it slow, look for signs of hidden features and call for expert help at the first sign of trouble.

Les Fossel, who owns Restoration Resources in Alna and has been restoring old homes for 30 years, says one of the first things he does when looking at a restoration project is to figure out what sort of features would be in a house of that age.

If it's a Victorian, he might look for trompe l'oeil paintings (paintings meant to mirror three-dimensional features) under wallpaper, sheet rock or drop ceilings. In some homes of the 1800s, he'll look for hidden fireplaces. In homes of the 1830s or '40s, he wouldn't be surprised to find wall murals, which were very popular.

So instead of just knocking down a wall you don't want, it's a good idea to have a professional check to see if there's evidence of a mural, or some other painted wall decoration, under wallpaper or layers of paint.

''Some wall murals can be worth five or six figures,'' said Fossel. The problem is that to sell them, they must be removed, wall and all.

Fossel says that if a homeowner has any reason to suspect a hidden feature, they should probably consult an expert before doing anything that could damage it.

If there seems to be a lot of space between walls, for instance, it might mean there's a hidden fireplace. If you can see a ridge coming up through wallpaper or paint, it might mean there are old stenciled decorations underneath.

''If you shine a light across your walls and ceiling at night, and that's the only light in the room, you could find a ridge, which indicates stenciling underneath,'' said Tony Castro of New Gloucester, a restoration professional who restores and re-creates historic wall decorations.

Calling in a professional is important if you want to preserve something, because they would know what techniques might work to remove unwanted materials while preserving historic features. For example, certain solvents can be used with certain fabrics to scrape away excess layers of paint while protecting wall decorations underneath, Castro said.

To find a restoration professional, you could check the Northern New England Restoration Directory published by Greater Portland Landmarks. Or you could contact GPL about their advisory service.

For $85 ($35 for members), GPL will send restoration experts to your house to help you tackle your project in a safe and efficient way.

''We'll go out, discuss your concerns, and write up a report on what can be done,'' said Tom Hinkle, a retired home restorer and member of GPL's advisory service. ''It's always better to slow down and get an expert's advice.''

Hicks called in experts, but is not sure what he's going to do next. The murals are in an apartment that he needs to rent, so he doesn't really want to leave them exposed. And he's not sure a renter would want old murals behind protective glass in their living room. So he might end up covering them up again, but in a way that preserves them for the future.

The Rufus Porter Museum also got a call last fall from homeowners in Hebron, near South Paris, who found Porter-like murals in their dining room while removing wallpaper. The murals include a courthouse or municipal building, plus some general country scenery.

''One section had four or five layers of wallpaper, but underneath we found the murals,'' said Nancy Edwards of Hebron, whose house dates from the 1830s.

''We can't know for sure (if it's Porter or another noted mural painter), because there's no signature. It's a little faded in spots, but we're just going to leave it like that, uncovered.

''I love this sort of thing.''

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or

rrouthier@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Murals by Rufus Porter, a mural painter from New England in the early 1900's. These murals were found by Mike and Carole Hicks when they were renovating their Winthrop apartment.

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Murals by Rufus Porter, a mural painter from New England in the early 1900's. These murals were found by Mike and Carole Hicks when they were renovating their Winthrop apartment.

 


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