Restoring the Hidden Lady of Cranky Sam Public House
As construction began at what is now Cranky Sam Public House, some deconstruction was in order first. The property (which has fronts facing downtown Missoula’s Main Street and also Front Street) had served the most recent decades as a radiator repair shop. Prior to that, the block had seen several more decades as a number of different businesses, some of which were active parts of downtown’s red light district around the turn of the 20th century.
Owners Jennifer and Jed Heggen had not yet even settled on choosing a name for the new establishment when artifacts such as old bottles and glassware with a distinct influence from the Chinese immigrants who frequented the area began turning up under the foundation. The legend of a local character nicknamed “Cranky Sam” ultimately became the namesake that was adopted as the name of the new enterprise.
While work progressed on the property, the Heggens also heard rumors about a painting of a naked lady, somewhere within the building’s walls from previous tenants, that had long ago been covered up and mostly forgotten with the passage of time.
As much of the old drywall was being removed, one day – there she was – the long rumored “Hidden Lady” – in very surprisingly good condition, she had hardly aged since the day she was covered up. A search was made for an authoritative historical restoration expert to evaluate their find, with the idea of keeping her intact and repairing the damage that had happened since she made her original appearance.
Jeffrey MacDonald, Ph.D, happened to be not far away with his Heritage Preservation / Consulting & Service practice in Potomac. His firm was chosen to review the condition of the Hidden Lady, and to proceed with overseeing the historic stabilization and repair work to restore her to full glory for new generations to enjoy her company.
Follow along with his notes and images below for the progression that was made from discovery to full restoration.
The mural of a “Mystery Woman” discovered during the Cranky Sam Public House construction process, is a piece of original artwork directly applied to an interior wall surface. The hand painted mural consists of a stylized, and graphically rendered female figure depicted in silhouette. While a signature is not immediately evident, the overall rendering of the figure, deliberate foreshortening and general mark-making provides evidence of an artist with some basic knowledge of color, form, and composition in addition to public art and artistic genres. The rather risqué subject, consisting of a nude figure in a balanced pose upon one toe, may hold some underlying historic or social significance, however the mural theme and general placement suggestion a connection to a public or club, pub, or similar establishment.
The work displays an overall style and palette reflective of the social realism genre that gained popularity in the first half of the 20th century. The use of the limited palette of black, rich earthy reds, and yellow ochres is most indicative of graphic art of the former Soviet Union, and propaganda pieces following the 1917 revolution, and forward throughout the century. Similar limited palettes, mark-making and graphic representations may also be found in Chinese propaganda posters, and social realism inspired illustration, murals and other public and graphic arts contemporaneous with this period.
The Social Realism genre became equally developed in the US throughout the early half of the 20th Century. Noting the documented history of Chinese occupation of the building, it is possible the surviving mural is associated with earlier periods of use, businesses or social functions, and décor specifics of the building interior. From outward indication, and in the absence of paint analysis, it is likely that the mural and figure depiction depiction dates to the second quarter of the 20th Century. (1925-1950).
Initial Condition Assessment Summary
The mural artwork, original wall surfaces, and finish materials were originally presented in an exposure window, created to showcase the historic palette and imagery. The artwork and surfaces were in overall good condition, greatly assisted by encapsulation of the interior partition over many years.
Historic Mural Stabilization and Repair
The following images illustrate the methods and materials that were utilized in the repair and restoration of the wall surface and mural, along with observations revealed during this process.
The above images illustrate repairs to the coarse parging coat beneath the outermost smooth plaster veneer. Repairs employed a mixture of local river sand and a reversible alkyd and barium-zinc based patching compound.
The above images illustrated original color palettes, as well as overpainting events revealed in the investigation and cleaning process. The clean and tarnished portions offer indication of the original vibrancy of the historic palettes, along with evidence of overpainting the upper wall section with the present green-blue color. The original upper wall color is revealed to be similar to the lower palette of red vermillion, with further traces of a mid-tone orange color. This orange color is part of the original palette of the mural, and is evident in trace amounts along the contours of the figure.
Repairs to the plaster were performed using Zinnser Ready Patch, a proprietary patching compound. This material is most easily reversible and most compatible with the overall parging and plaster repairs.
The repaired plaster areas were then prepared for primer by lightly wet-sanding as needed with clean water, steel wool, and cotton cloths.
A water-based primer was then applied to prepared wall plaster and painted surfaces, to spot-prime these areas for finish paint.
In-painting of the wall surfaces and mural was conducted using acrylic media, and color matched to the respective areas.
Paint was applied using traditional mechanical means, and required several events to build up the appropriate level of color saturation.
While the red vermillion, black and ochre color palette is original to the mural (circa 1920-1940), the green upper wall color is a later, mid-20th Century paint event, which in addition to transforming the appearance of the interior space from a warm to a cool palette, further modified the overall appearance and intent of the original artist.
Overtly provocative in subject, the mural depiction of a woman balanced atop the line separating upper and lower wall sections is likely part of an earlier and larger allegorical rendering, or potential advertisement.
In visualizing the mural subject with an original upper wall color of a similar red vermillion, the figure would then appear to balance, or perch upon an off-white fine line, currently barely visible at the interface of the upper and lower wall sections.
Finis! And now, the Hidden Lady of Cranky Sam is no longer hidden. She now commands a place of honor in full and lovingly restored display in the Public House for all to enjoy over a fresh cold beverage with friends for posterity.
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Cranky Sam Public House & Brewery