Art Deco renewal at 30 Rock

The building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza is famous now for being the headquarters of NBC and the name of the network’s finest comedy show. When it was first built in the 30’s, however, its Art Deco murals coordinated by Edward Trumbull stole the show.

At long last, attention is again being payed to these masterpieces of the genre and restorers are hard at work on a two year project to return the faded and darkened works to their original splendor.

Before the cleaning began, Mr. Greene enlisted several scientists to analyze and test the murals to determine their condition, the composition of the paints and exactly what had been done by previous conservators. “I was afraid these murals were hiding a multitude of sins,” he said.

It was the 1970s varnish, they realized, that had to be removed first. One scientist formulated a chemical cleaning solution, but Mr. Greene was afraid to use it, concerned that it might damage the paint underneath.

He also tried removing the varnish with an electric toothbrush, but it didn’t come off easily enough. Then he realized that the simplest method was still the best: gently rubbing all the surfaces with an agate burnisher or a bone folder, a tool more commonly used for book binding. By working slowly, in tiny sections, the varnish began to flake off easily. “It’s a green, incredibly low-tech solution,” Mr. Greene said. Still, he added, “it is going to take two years to get through all the murals, one inch at a time.”

It’s amazing how with all our fancy technologies, so many major restoration projects use things like a basic stone scraping tool or Q-Tips and water to remove decades/centuries/millennia of grime.

The theme for the 30 Rock murals was the New Frontiers of society in all fields — science, labor, education, travel, communication, humanitarianism, finance and spirituality — and Trumbull enlisted a variety of fine muralists to convey this theme in concert with the warm stone background of the structure itself.

Over the dirty, dirty years, the murals have darkened dramatically, so when the restoration is done, we’ll see the figures cooperate with their environment in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades.