Lake Forest Library begins rotunda mural restoration project

By Gregory Harutunian for Chronicle Media

Restoration artists work on the historic 1932 murals at the Lake Forest Library that were damaged by water seepage from the dome. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

With its historic dome now repaired, the Lake Forest Library has undertaken a restoration program for its 1932 hand-painted murals that adorn the main rotunda area. The paintings were partially damaged by water seepage because of leaking from the dome and the restoration is expected to take four to six weeks.

The murals are a series of large-scale paintings depicting the ancient Greeks. The artist, Nikolai Remisoff, was commissioned for the work by Arthur E. Hamill, a Lake Forest resident and the library’s president, in 1931. Remisoff had previously completed paintings and murals in the Hamill home, who also served as the artist’s patron.

The Friends of the Lake Forest Library supplied the funding for the project, not to exceed $250,000. They also provided a $16,000 contingency funding grant. The Berwyn-based firm of PARMA Conservation, an art restoration service, was awarded the job order.

“We arrived on Feb. 5 to begin restoring the murals, and we’ll be here for up to six weeks,” said John Salhus, of PARMA. “We use hydraulic lifts to get to the upper parts.”

The mural panels are in keeping with the overall Byzantine design and exterior of the library. The panels depict Homer, Sappho, Virgil, Cicero, Diogenes, Pythagoras in the rotunda, and four smaller landscape designs painted directly onto the plaster above the doorway accesses.

Buckling and water discoloration damage was discovered on one of the canvas paintings, which led to discovering a leak in the dome. It was covered in a heavy plastic in 2017, which was later replaced after being shredded by exposure to the elements. The original 1931 dome was itself replaced in 1980, with a support frame and copper material.

The facade of the Lake Forest Library with its repaired dome. It replaced a 1980 installation made with copper materials. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

“I came in May of 2023, and work had already started on the dome and was completed in August and completely replaced,” said Ishwar Laxminarayan, the library’s executive director. “In 2017, we started visible signs of moisture on the canvas murals that line the rotunda. Further investigation traced it back to the dome. At that time, there was talk of a broader project, as this building is from 1931.”

He also said there were building additions over the years, to its present footing. A capital improvement plan to look at the building, the access, the elevators, and other items were scrapped when the water damage was discovered. The murals became the high priority item in saving them from further deterioration.

“The murals are almost as old as the library, done in 1932, by Remisoff, a Russian émigré,” said Laxminarayan. “He later went on to Hollywood and did set designs for films. The Friends of Lake Forest Library were instrumental, and we received four bids. PARMA said their work would not exceed $266,000. They did not know the damage extent. The Friends stepped up, and the process was started.”

The work-in-progress can viewed as the mural restoration takes place. The artists also answer questions from patrons visiting the library, while they paint. Their efforts already have shown a dramatic effect with the revived colors, since the murals were treated to a cleaning more than two decades ago.

“Many things are being considered, and the conservators want to invite groups to view them, such as community groups, schools,” said Laxminarayan. “I announced it at the village board meeting, so we’re getting the word out to come see this, as it is being done. They’ve only been here since the start of the month, and they’re happy to answer questions.”