Conservator Corrine Long applies a cleaning gel solution to a section of wall in the central staircase at the Victoria Mansion in Portland on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Corrine Long wiped a cotton swab on the wall, and a century of grime was gone.

“Oh, I’m starting to get that dark stuff off,” she said.

Long was standing on the second floor of the Victoria Mansion in Portland. The 19th-century home is in a constant state of restoration, but Thursday was the start of a major project in one of its most highly trafficked spaces. The decorative walls of this central hallway are darkened by soot from the coal that heated the mansion in its heyday and grease from the fingers of 30,000 annual visitors in its modern era. Long is a conservator from Gianfranco Pocobene Studio in Massachusetts, and she will spend nearly two years cleaning and restoring this space inch by inch.

She paused to consider a couple of marks that resisted her swab.

“I’m going to leave them for now,” she said.

“I wouldn’t push them,” Gianfranco Pocobene agreed. He surveyed the small section she had just cleaned, no bigger than a postcard. They were testing the cleaning solution they created specifically for this job. “You’re happy, right?”


“Yeah, it’s going so good,” she answered. “Look at that.”

Dozens of craftspeople and professionals have worked on this historic house, but Pocobene and his team are among the most impactful. The Victoria Mansion boasts unique trompe l’oeil paintings on the walls by Italian-born artist Giuseppe Guidicini. The mansion is one of the last surviving examples of his optical illusions that made one dimension look like three, paint like silk or marble. That wall panel that looks like wood? It’s actually painted plaster. But these murals have also been dirtied in the 160-plus years since Guidicini made them, and the nonprofit that stewards the house today started working with Pocobene years ago to restore them.

Long applies a cleaning gel solution to a section of wall in the second-floor central staircase hallway at the Victoria Mansion. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It’s work that has to be undertaken very slowly and carefully by professionals in the conservation world,” said Tim Brosnihan, its executive director. “It’s a long-term project. We’ve been at it intensively for 15 years, and my guess would be that we have at least another 15 years ahead of us if we are to work through the house.”

Most of the money for these restoration projects comes from private foundations and donors, but the Victoria Mansion received rare federal dollars to pay for this project in the second-floor stair hall. The grant from the Museums for America program at the Institute of Museum and Library Services will cover half of the total cost. The nonprofit is currently fundraising a match of $148,043.


Pocobene, 67, got an art degree but didn’t want to be an artist.


He explored his options and decided to pursue a master’s degree in conservation from Queen’s University in Canada. He graduated in 1984 and now has four decades of experience in the field. He worked for 15 years at the Harvard Art Museums and then became the head of conservation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In the meantime, he has maintained a private practice and plans to step away from his museum job this winter to concentrate full time on his studio.

Conservator Gianfranco Pocobene removes a cleansing gel solution from a section of wall in the second-floor central stairway hall at the Victoria Mansion in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Long, 33, met Pocobene when she was working as a security guard at the Gardner Museum. She also studied art as an undergraduate, and she kept poking her head in as Pocobene was installing an exhibition there. He was working on a mural project at the time and needed extra hands, so he invited her to assist. She became an apprentice in 2013 and got a master’s from Queen’s University as well in 2020; she has now returned to work in his studio. Only a handful of programs in the United States and Canada offer such advanced training.

“We do a lot of problem solving on the job,” Long said. “A lot of the things that we do might seem simple on the surface, but every project is unique, so every project has to be discussed thoroughly before.”

The transformations they can achieve are also satisfying in both the short term and the long term. The appearance of the paintings immediately improves, and so does the experience of future viewers.

“You put them in a better place,” Pocobene said. “You’re passing them on for future generations.”

The Turkish Smoking Room was the first room that conservator Gianfranco Pocobene worked on at the Victoria Mansion in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The studio specializes in conservation and restoration of paintings, murals and historic paint decorations. They work on paintings small enough to fit on an easel and murals that span huge walls. Pocobene’s first project at the Victoria Mansion was 15 years ago in the Turkish Smoking Room, a small but luxurious lounge on the second floor. He brought Long to the building early in her apprenticeship as well. They’ve been making the trip to Maine on and off ever since.


“Every few years, there’s been a new room to do,” he said.


The palatial Victoria Mansion was built between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home for New Orleans hotelier Ruggles Sylvester Morse and his wife, Olive. The home is a time capsule for 19th-century life, including the wealth these native Mainers built through his participation in slavery in Louisiana. The 11,000-square-foot house at 109 Danforth St. contains nearly all of the original furnishings and finishes.

The Morse family sold the mansion in 1894 to J.R. Libby, a local dry goods merchant who made few changes to the property. His family lived at the mansion for about 35 years, and it became a museum in 1941. Time, use and neglect have all contributed to deterioration. Brosnihan said contemporary professionals such as Pocobene and Long reveal more information about the craftspeople who made the home what it was.


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A prime example is the reception room, which is on the first floor above the former coal bays.

“It was almost black with soot,” Brosnihan said. “As they cleaned the soot away, it revealed these really vibrant colors underneath. There were new techniques. They were looking to imitate silk fabric in paint on the walls and ceiling. It was really diminished, but as they cleaned it, suddenly we understand better what the painter was up to.”


A close inspection of the mansion walls can reveal pencil marks from the artists who drew the intricate designs on the wall. Those findings are always exciting to Pocobene and Long.

“They really knew their craft, and they really knew how to paint,” Pocobene said. “We get to conserve it, restore it and preserve it. When your nose is against the wall and you look at the technique, you’re blown away by how incredible they are.”


The conservators started planning their work in the fall. The first step is cleaning, and it is more complicated that spritzing a bottle of Lysol.

Pocobene and Long want to remove the grime without harming the art underneath it, so they need to know what kind of materials the artists used. On the second floor, the ceiling is painted with distemper, which is made with water. A wet cleaner might remove the dirt, but it would also remove the paint. So the conservators will use erasers, makeup sponges and other dry supplies instead.

A lighter section on the wrist of a statue in the central stairwell is a test cleaning by conservators and shows what the entire statue will look like when conservator work is finished. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On the walls themselves, the designs are done in a hardier oil paint that can stand up to liquid cleaners. In some areas, the walls also bear residue from waxes, varnishes and even more paint from previous attempts to freshen the space. The conservators will bring a UV light to the site to help identify those extra layers, and they hope to strip them away to show only the original. They worked with a specialist to create the right cleaning solution for this hallway, testing more than a dozen options on the walls in the fall. They cleaned tiny squares as small as a thumbnail and no bigger than a Post-It note to compare products.


On Thursday, Long returned with the winning solution. She set up her supplies – a portable light to supplement the 19th-century lamps, a wad of cotton in her coat pocket. Her task for the day was to clean larger sections of the wall to confirm their selection. She had mixed it in the studio in both liquid and gel forms, and she dipped her swab into the liquid without any hesitation. It contains two chelators (which attract metal ions in general soot), a detergent (to break the surface tension on grease) and a pH buffer (to help lift grime and also balance the cleaner to keep the underlying paint safe).

“This cocktail was specifically crafted for this specific grime on this specific surface,” Long said.

She took a first pass at the grime with the liquid, then went back at it with the gel to lift more stubborn dirt from cracks. She worked inch by inch as Pocobene observed, and they discussed the results with satisfied nods. This wall was painted to create the effect of three-dimensional molding, and her swipes not only removed a gray tint of dirt but also accentuated the design. Pocobene snapped photos on his cellphone; the conservators document every project before, during and after.

Conservators left a strip of uncleaned area in this wall painting in the greeting room at the Victoria Mansion in Portland to show what the walls looked like before conservators cleaned them. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Long will eventually clean the entire hallway – save one final square. The conservators always leave a small section untouched to show visitors the contrast to its previous condition. When the cleaning is done, the team will start restoring the existing paint by saving as much of the flaking paint as possible and then filling in the areas of loss.

It is highly skilled work, and a study published last February by the Northeast Regional Initiative for the Preservation Trades identified moderate to severe workforce shortages in the field. Brosnihan knows local specialists who can replicate that wood-grain effect or repair stained-glass windows, but he is concerned about whether those skills will be passed down to future generations. The Victoria Mansion held a demonstration last year with local professionals in window sash glazing, woodwork repair and sand painting. This year, they hope to host hands-on sessions as well.

And Pocobene and Long are offering a lesson of sorts just by being in the mansion. The building is closed for its annual winter break and won’t reopen to the public until May. But the conservators will continue their work when visitors return. They will often answer questions from passersby and see those interactions as an opportunity to share more information about paint restoration.

“I like to think that the careful sort of preservation work that we’re doing here can telegraph out into the community and help people understand how beautiful historic buildings can be and that there are people who can undertake this work, even if they are in short supply,” Brosnihan said.

For now, the halls are quiet as Long and Pocobene work. They gently rub dirt off the wall, revealing what is underneath.

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