New Orleans — Amid the cacophony of construction at the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street, there’s a quieter, gentler work taking place at the same time.
Since March, a small team of artisans has worked to carefully remove layers of paint in some parts of the building while they clean other areas that decades of dust and grime have sullied.
The goal of the $52 million restoration project, financed by a mix of private money and federal and state tax credits, is to bring back the Saenger to its original grandeur by the time of its anticipated summer reopening. Part of making that happen means paying attention to the smallest of details in a theater where there is no shortage of detail.
In that regard, the artisans charged with restoring the paint jobs on the theater’s walls and ceilings have their work cut out.
They almost need the skill sets of a detective and a surgeon to do their jobs.
While crews found sets of original blueprints to help with the general restoration required after Hurricane Katrina flooded the building, there really is no documentation that exists to spell out what colors were used where, said Terry VanderWall, director of restoration for Evergreene Architectural Arts, a firm with offices in New York and California, whose employees will handle most of the restorative painting.
Because of that, his artisans in many cast must peel away layer upon layer of paint to get to the base coat that was there when the theater opened on Feb. 5, 1927. After the theater reveals its past, they can match those original colors to the rest of the area in which they are working, making good on a promise to bring the past back to life.
The process to restore some finishes in the 85-year-old play house have been a little simpler.
While a majority of the original finishes were painted over during the years, some were never touched, leaving nothing but a cleaning job to bring them back to their original state.
“In cases where we could leave it, we would, but in most cases we had to restore,” VanderWall said.
The restorative painting is complete in some parts of the theater, such as the ceiling of the lobby just off of Canal Street. Artisans spent weeks on scaffolding to complete that task.
Crews will soon move into the auditorium, designed to look like a 15th-century Italian courtyard, and will begin to bring back its luster. As the amount of the work expands, some local talent will be hired to help with the progress, VanderWall said.
That, he said, should be exciting for the locals.
“Anytime I meet somebody from New Orleans, they have a story” about the Saenger, VanderWall said. “It makes the work more rewarding.”