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Cozying Up to a Column

By Royce Williams

Capitol columns before scagliola

Columns in 1911 wait for the original coating of scagliola.
Photo courtesy: Tourtellotte and Hummel Architects

Scagliola (scal-lee-ola) is that thin coating on a column that turns its plain old steel, brick, and concrete innards into the art of human aspirations. It is the evidence of our better selves that resembles marble, thus committing to the ages those dreams our words cannot bridge. It is not the marble of quarries; it is marble made by us, making it somehow more important than the stone.

If you’re interested in making scagliola, you won’t have a lot of competition. It is difficult to make and easy to screw up and takes thousands of man-hours, and just about anything can throw the process awry at any step in the process. It’s basically art from glue, so it’s a sticky mess until it’s done. But when its done right, it takes on that milky sheen, with no glare, that is pleasing to the eye. It draws the eye, in fact, for it suggests geologic magic in dark, hot places far underground where real marble is forged.

Classic scagliola begins with a silk sheet stretched over a marble table. White animal glue is applied, and raw silk threads with knotted ends soaked in earth pigments are pulled through the wet mixture like a string puzzle on a child’s hands. This process gives a final marbling that’s fine-grained, a spider’s-web effect.

For columns like those in the Idaho Capitol, the process is a bit more straightforward. The thin bed of glue-plaster (sometimes a new white cement called Keene cement) is laid down on a canvas—sailcloth or burlap. Then artists are called in, not with brushes but with trowels, and they apply earth pigments swirled with a lot of wrist action.

Scagliola damage

One-hundred years can take its toll on scagliola applied
by Italian artisans. Photo courtesy: Gary Daniel

Scagliola repair

And Randy Schaffer, EverGreene Architectural
Arts, can make the disaster disappear.
Photo courtesy: Gary Daniel

The art is to get the splotches, swirls, bubbles of marbling into the mix in random shapes, dispersed so that the underlying color isn’t overpowered. Before the mixture sets, it is wrapped around a column—canvas on the outside; smoothed out; and allowed to dry some more. At just the right time, the canvas is peeled away, leaving a somewhat pitted surface that has to be rubbed, sanded in shifts of finer and finer consistency, then polished. The result looks a bit like those old pieces of oilcloth that were used as tablecloths 50 years ago. The Capitol’s scagliola is about 3/32 inch thick.

Yes, there is a seam when panels or the ends of panels join on the column. Never in a thousand years would anyone be lucky enough to get the random pattern on one side to match the pattern on the other side. Again, the artist is called in. The seam is treated like any other crack in a column that needs repairing. A swirl that starts on one side is carried over to the other side. An arabesque that’s missing a “besque” on the other side has to have one painted in. If two white areas collide, the “crack” has to be filled and sanded smooth.

We have looked for seams in the white and sagebrush green of the large columns around the rotunda of Idaho’s Capitol, but we can’t see them. In the current rehab work, other things have been found: gobs of Juicy Fruit chewing gum from maybe the 1950s; nicotine stains perhaps from a 1920s legislator’s cigar; holes punched to hold a poster announcing a public hearing; plain old dirt; tape that held a paper plate telling family members where to meet the rest of the family; peanut butter and jelly from the hands of someone who tried to reach around a column; chipped spots where a dolly got away from somebody; varnish and yellowing shellac….

EverGreene Architectural Arts, whose president and executive project director, Jeff Greene, is a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute, is working on the two basic styles of columns in Idaho’s Capital—Roman Corinthian and Greek—that reflect the original architect’s penchant for mixing styles in buildings he designed. Bases and shafts of both columns are similar, but the styles can be separated by the flared tops, called capitals.

Corinthian column

The Corinthian columns around the rotunda and at the front and back entrances have capitals designed to resemble, not potato leaves, but a foliage plant that grows around the Mediterranean. The acanthus leaves are deeply slotted and curved, lending a symmetrical and full flare to the columns. Those in Idaho’s Capitol are the most fluid and complex—the Renaissance style. Corinthian column shafts can be smooth, as are those around the rotunda, or slotted, as they are at the north and south entrances.

Removing old paint (as many as 15 coats of it) from these leaves and filling in the chipped plaster of their construction took days of work with tools as small as toothpicks and nail files to sharp putty knives. Even with plastic gloves, there were some scraped knuckles. To protect themselves from possible old lead paint, the workers resembled surgeons more than painters.

Greek columns are usually smooth, and their capitals are clean, straightforward scrolls. These smaller columns stand in a circle at the back of each of the mezzanines around the central rotunda and can be found in various spaces on each of the building’s four main floors.

If you weren’t asleep in Art Appreciation 101, you know that columns hold up an entablature—a very decorative or very straight-lined grouping of architraves, friezes, dentils, all topped with a cornice. Between the capital and the architrave is a thin, level piece of stone called the abacus. If you took home an A in AA-101, you know that the sky’s the limit on what can decorate entablatures, but the dentils are always what their name suggests: teeth.

EverGreene (out of New York City, Oak Park, Illinois, and Oakland, California) recounts a rich history for scagliola. It has been used for at least 1,500 years; it has been found in Egyptian tombs. The formula was kept secret for centuries, usually available only from very dedicated monks; but the secret leaked out, and it became popular in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries mostly because nature doesn’t make curved marble. And the colors on nature’s palate don’t stretch as far as some have wanted.

The faux marble fad died out, however, and by the 1920s so did many of the artisans who knew the essentials of the intricate work. Starting from a few notes and hints in old correspondence, books, and interviews, Jeff Greene finally figured out, if not the best way, his workable way of making marble as beautiful as or more beautiful than the real thing.