Careful hands touch up ‘Trophy Room’ murals

While Washingtonians might ramp up their air conditioners or bolt for the beach on the weekends, the Architect of the Capitol’s (AoC) office is doing its part to combat the heat and humidity.

Conservators have taken on a project in the “Trophy Room” of the Capitol, an area on the first floor of the Senate wing past the Senate Appointments Desk that dates back to the 1860s.

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AoC Curator Barbara Wolanin estimated that this beautiful space— a high, domed ceiling covered with elaborate etchings and images — was designed in 1859 by Constantino Brumidi, whose frescoes enliven much of the Capitol building. Popular theories hold that English sculptor James Leslie did the actual paintings on the ceiling, as he is known to have created other artwork under Brumidi’s direction, Wolanin said.

The area is now deemed the Trophy Room because it is adorned by “lunettes” — half-moon-shaped piles of weapons associated with battle ruins, which war victors historically assembled after defeating their enemies, Wolanin explained. Initially crafted to conjure carved stone, the Trophy Room features three-dimensional eagles, wreaths and plants, seemingly poised to leap down from the ceiling. 

The Trophy Room’s brown and gray hues are made of Tempra, a fragile, water-based paint. Over the years, widely fluctuating temperatures and moisture in the air have taken a toll on this delicate artwork, causing the paint to separate from the plaster beneath it. 

“From the floor, it looked fine,” Wolanin said, “but up close you can see lots of flaking … almost every patch needed to be conserved.”

Since scaffolds went up in early May, conservators have been hard at work reattaching the peeled paint, one chip at a time, according to information provided by the AoC.

“It was a big challenge,” Wolanin said. Over the years, painters have tried to restore the Trophy Room ceiling on two separate occasions. Yet because the conservation movement — and the conservators’ profession itself— is relatively young, artists simply tried to copy over the original designs with darker paint. 

“The scene just became dirty,” Wolanin said. 

This time around, conservators scouted places on the ceiling that retained their original hues and worked on recoloring the surface from there. Once restoration is complete, the space “should be lighter and more convincingly [made] of stone,” Wolanin said. 

The project was initially expected to be completed by early July, but “conservators are realizing we need to touch every inch of [the ceiling] up,” Wolanin said. The AoC expects to finish work on the ceiling by Labor Day. 

Despite the scaffolding’s having been in the corridor for an extended period of time, Wolanin said Congress has been nothing but encouraging. 

“Typically, work like this happens at night or during recess,” AoC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said. But with Congress’s invaluable support for this project, “we can now do all of the conservation work [on the ceiling] in one fell swoop,” she said, adding that the Trophy Room is also not a “high-traffic area,” so the scaffold does not impede passers-by. 

The Trophy Room’s restoration is part of an ongoing AoC initiative to preserve Brumidi’s artwork throughout the Capitol. Every year, the office conserves another section of the walls in the building. According to Wolanin, many walls have already been restored to their original looks from the 1850s and 1860s, and the AoC is constantly looking ahead to refurbish additional areas.

“Once this is gone, you can’t get it back,” Malecki said of the masterpieces that wink from the Capitol walls. And just as these conservation projects are about honoring our past, they are also “about preserving our history for 200 years from now,” she said.