On September 20th, the League will host the 2014 Beaux Arts Ball at Weylin B. Seymour’s, an event venue next to the Williamsburg Bridge that was the former headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. As part of an ongoing feature in anticipation of the event and in celebration of its theme of Craft, we visited the studio of decorative painting conservator and gilder Sandra Spannan, owner of see. Painting and see. Gold, to discuss restoring the 1875 fresco, the craft of gold leafing, and the gilding profession. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Sandra Spannan

Michael Smart introduced me to the Wiliamsburgh Savings Bank project. He knew I would love the job, particularly because of my connection to Williamsburg. When I came to New York from Germany I lived in a loft in Williamsburg for $200 a month, and Michael and I both had studios in the Gretsch Building at 60 Broadway for a long time. I fell in love with the energy of the place. Back then, Broadway had car repair shops and places like that. I remember when Diner opened and no one believed it would survive — which of course, looking back now, is a joke; now there are restaurants and hotels all over. I definitely feel a personal connection to the neighborhood and to that block especially.

Restoration of the 1875 P.B. Wight dome | Courtesy of see. Painting, Inc.

At the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, I was first hired just to restore the decorative mural painting in the large dome. We ended up also doing a lot of the gold leafing or supervising the gold leafing throughout the building, including the exterior gold leafing on the smaller dome. I also worked with the owners and the architect closely to define and to match the color palette. I was involved for a whole year, with at least three people — Rafael Sanchez, Masha Gitin, and Lisa Ingram — on site five days a week for a stretch of six months.

With these kinds of projects, you start falling in love with the place and you feel a responsibility towards it. It’s very different from our high-end residential work, or restaurants; those don’t evoke the same kind of crazy passion.

P.B. WIGHT DOME (1875)
The large dome was already cleaned and conserved by the time we were brought on. Before we began painting, we sealed the whole dome in a barrier coat so that in the future people could return the fresco to its original condition before we started our restoration.  That’s standard in preservation. All of our varnishes were custom mixes by Landmarks Commission-approved paint makers, and all the paints were oil based, which was what was used originally. We used paint analysis, photographs, and old drawings to select colors, as well as what was still visible from the mural, but the paint had faded over time and from the cleaning. We definitely tried to match the colors as closely as possible to the originals, but as with any restoration there was always a discussion about how to bright to go, how much to touch up only what was missing versus paint to match the original. We wanted the dome to look clean, but not new; it’s okay that historic features show a little age, even after restoration.

Courtesy of see. Painting, Inc.

The dome space was completely pitch black while we were working. Once the platform was built, there was just a little hole of light coming through the stairs and no daylight. We had no idea if it was day or night while up there. Everyone had their own headlights, and then we had tons of additional lighting. But with only electric light up there, it was tricky to match the colors. We were nervous when the scaffolding came down because we had never seen the work in the sunlight. Initially I thought that the fresco was a little too bright. The original colors were likely all as bright as what we used, but I was used to seeing it so faded and patina-ed. But I think it works now, and the limestone walls give it the kind of balance it needs.

High-quality, well-applied real gold leaf lasts for a long, long time. You don’t really have to maintain it. So there were sections in the mural and on the moldings that we just cleaned and left alone. For the parts that were chipped off or missing, we matched the gold leaf. For sections of the fresco that were completely missing, we took pictures of other sections that were similar and copied them by hand.

At the top of the dome, we painted around each star, and then re-gilded each little star afterwards. You can barely even see how many stars there are from below. Then the problem was that, because this was all oil based, it takes months and months for it to really cure. So when we gilded the little stars, everything around it got stuck with gold leaf. So we ended up making 20 different stencils for each of the different star sizes. You have to be quite crazy to do this. Masha and I were just crazy enough!

Courtesy of see. Painting, Inc.

1906 DOME
The later dome, from 1906, originally had dark green moldings and heavy, masculine tones — what you would expect from a grand bank. There was a little bit of red in there, too. The moldings and ribs had been primed over by the previous owners. Like the other dome, we had evidence of historic colors, but had to determine how bright to paint them. I kept looking at the overall composition, and I thought it would be really nice to develop the tones, textures, and grid patterns that are present in the stone, because the limestone has such a beautiful, natural livelihood. Even though it’s very calming, it really has a lot going on. So this was one thing I’m really proud of, painting the ribs to mimic the limestone. In the end, the moldings were colored gold with mica powder and then painted a brighter blue than the green that was there, along with details that were gilded in 23 karat gold. These are small details, but they enrich the place.

Gilding the 1906 dome | Courtesy of see. Painting, Inc.

Repainting the vault | Courtesy of see. Painting, Inc.

We also ended up re-painting the exterior of the vault. All of the paint was chipping, there were a lot of little spider cracks. We printed hand-cut stencils to mimic the design, with the exact colors and gold leaf. The black, dark orange, and burgundy red are all repainted and then stenciled. The medallions were stripped, re-blackened, and re-gilded. All the flowers and all those little dots were also 23 karat gold.

There are oil gilding and water gilding processes. We used a 12-hour French oil-based adhesive at the Savings Bank. You apply the size (type of glue) and then let it cure for twelve hours, after which you have an eight-hour window to adhere the gold leaf. So we had somebody just painting dabs of glue all day for the next day of work.

Sheets of gold leaf

Demonstrating gilding technique

The sheets of leaf are so thin that if you touch one with your hand, even if it’s freshly washed or you’re wearing gloves, it either sticks or immediately disintegrates. We usually use a pick-up brush, a knife, and a special gilders pad to do this kind of work. You use the gilders knife to cut the leaf into small bits, and then you can pick it up with the pick-up brush.

We had to adapt to limited resources.  For instance, there wasn’t enough money to have my crew apply all of the 23-karat gold leaf, so I trained the owners’ construction crew how to do it. I was very happy to do this — this was definitely a passion project, not a money maker, and we all just wanted the job done as beautifully as possible, and in the right way. I led a two-day class with a Spanish translator, provided printouts on the process, and taught all these construction guys in their hard helmets how to do gold leafing. I really liked them; they were very eager to learn and very serious and talented.

Gilding instruction | Courtesy of see. Painting, Inc.

Courtesy of see. Painting, Inc.

Since there was so much surface area and we had so many different people working, we decided to use patent leaf on most sections. Instead of a loose leaf, which flies around and takes more skill to pick up, patent leaf comes in sheets already stuck to a piece of paper. You can transfer it almost like a sticker. The patent leaf is usually more expensive to produce, but is cheaper when it comes to the cost of labor to apply it, and you don’t lose a lot of leaf. Because we had such a big crew that hadn’t used loose leaf before and there were so many moldings that had to be gilded, it was easier to supervise. The owners’ crew ended up doing most of the gold leafing on the exterior of the dome, wearing harnesses on the exterior while applying this delicate gold leafing, as well as the gold leafing on the board of trustees plaque above the vault.

Peter and Lauren Sepp of Sepp Leaf Products supplied the high quality, European gold leaf. Juan and Carlos could have gone with cheaper leaf from China, or fake leaf, or just gold painted everything. So it was impressive that they stretched themselves to go with the product from Sepp Leaf. There were even some sections where you could see that it had been painted gold and never had any gold leafing but they decided to go with the gold leaf in those areas as well, so that was pretty cool.

Weathervane, before and after restoration | Left: courtesy of Weylin B. Seymour’s, right: courtesy of Durston Saylor

I studied graphic design and art history, then started work doing custom paintings and faux finishes while I was still in school in Germany. While on a construction site in Berlin, I met someone doing gold leaf for the first time — a venerable artisan, whom I just watched and asked a million questions. I come from a middle class background; I never knew anyone who had gold leaf in their house. It seems more common here in New York City for someone to have a gold leaf ceiling or molding. In Germany, the more wealthy residential houses are usually more contemporary. Here you can find more new constructions with a classic look that incorporates gold leafing, and that preserve old moldings or gold leafed surfaces.

see. Painting studio in Harlem

I always joke that most of the artists that I work with have studied a lot more in the field than I have, despite my 25 years of work in the industry. A lot of them have Masters degrees in painting, and they are all really well trained artisans. There’s definitely hard labor involved sometimes, and I have some crew members that are better at that or have more fun doing that than others. So I have different people for different activities — some people are really good at gold leafing, while others have no patience for it but are really good at matching colors.

I have two people, Erin Weckerle and Masha Gitin, that mostly do glass gilded signage, because we do so much of that and it’s very precise and graphically involved. I have some people, like Christian Bongers and Paige Martin, who have been working with me on gold leaf architectural gilding jobs since the mid-’90s. They all have other creative careers — one is a musician, another a dancer — and I give them the flexibility to do their own work. I encourage all my employees to pursue their other passions and try to be as accommodating as possible.

Gold leaf on brush

The profession of the gilder has really died down in Europe. The craft seems to be on the rise in America, which is really funny. The Society of Gilders was founded here and has many American members, though there are European members as well. Gilders coming from Europe say there’s nothing comparable in Europe — you don’t even know another person who does gold leafing, or it’s just done in very small, crafty kind of ways; whereas here you have huge commercial architectural jobs for gold leafing. For example, I’ve done gilded Victoria’s Secret ceilings, all the gilded glass signage for Balthazar,  all the gilding work at the Diamond Horseshoe Club at the Paramount Hotel, and gold leaf signage for Tiffany & Co., to name a few.

Glass gilded signage used to be common in London or in Paris, and now you barely see it there anymore. It’s really interesting how New Yorkers love to bring those kinds of things back to life, and put money and education into them. I’ve been going to London about three times a year to do glass gilding, which is interesting since even though there are gilders there locally, they aren’t as flexible as you need to be in New York. In New York we’re used to being like, “Yes, I’ll come tomorrow! We have a sample ready.”

Courtesy of see. Painting, Inc.

Sandra Spannan, a native of Germany who has lived in New York City since 1993, is a painter, performer, and founder of the decorative painting company see. Painting, Inc and gilding company see. Gold, Inc. As an artist specializing in verre eglomise (glass gilding) as well as restoration and decorative finishes, Sandra has worked on private interiors, set designs, landmark restorations, and large-scale commercial projects throughout the world. Sandra is a member of the Society of Gilders.