Removing walls for art’s sake

Historic murals going to museum

Carpenter Jim Derby is part of the crew removing 18 mural-covered walls from a home in East Baldwin, Maine. Carpenter Jim Derby is part of the crew removing 18 mural-covered walls from a home in East Baldwin, Maine. (Fred Field for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / June 28, 2011

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EAST BALDWIN, Maine — Like many art collectors before them, Glenn and Norma Haines have developed an emotional attachment to the works they own. Now in their 70s, they’ve also thought hard about what to do with their collection when their circumstances changed.

That decision gets even more complicated when the art is painted right onto the homeowners’ walls, as is the case with the Haineses’ home. To remove these pictures means tearing apart a 165-year-old house.

Yet that is precisely what the couple has elected to do. They are allowing a construction crew to cut up and cart away a group of 18 mural-covered walls, which will be installed in a nearby museum for display. In doing so, they are protecting a little-known but treasured remnant of New England folk art, one that flourished in the early to mid-1800s and remains scattered in dozens of homes across the region.

“These walls were once the best-kept secret in town,’’ said Glenn Haines, a retired Coast Guard captain and antiques dealer. “It breaks my heart to sell the house, but it has to be done. And I’m glad these panels are going into the public domain.’’

The muralist in this case was folk artist Jonathan D. Poor, one of a half-dozen affiliated folk artists who traveled the region from 1825-45. They often did their best (if largely unsigned) work behind closed doors, creating interior landscapes and seascapes that brightened many a bleak New England winter. To art historians, their murals, largely found in Western Maine and Massachusetts, represent a trend in 19th-century home decoration closely aligned with the spirit of American self-reliance espoused by Emerson and Thoreau.

Poor was a nephew of Rufus Porter, a more celebrated folk artist who achieved even greater fame as a portraitist, inventor, and the founder of Scientific American magazine. Poor died in 1845 at age 43; his uncle died in 1884.

Porter sometimes painted an entire room in a single day, in exchange for goods or services, not cash. In the case of the murals in the Haineses’ home, painted for homeowner Dr. James Norton, a local physician, Poor may have received medical services in return. There is widespread consensus that these murals represent Poor’s finest work.

A typical landscape mural painting by Porter or his disciples might depict a waterfront or agrarian scene. Trees tower in the foreground, with a few small buildings planted in the distance, along with perhaps a boat or two, or farm animals. The colors are often vibrant and the detail is impressively sharp. In the Norton House, Poor’s murals are spread over two upstairs bedrooms, a staircase, and a first-floor landing.

To the dismay of art historians and preservationists, scores of these murals have been demolished, painted over, or severely damaged over the decades, their eye-pleasing simplicity — Porter believed almost anyone could paint them — no protection from leaky roofs and crayon-wielding children. The Norton House murals faced other threats as well. The house is still settling on its foundation, the Haineses note, and nearby railroad tracks may soon go back into service, possibly causing even more plaster-cracking vibrations.

“Had we not stepped in, these would have wound up in the hands of an antiques dealer, or been left in a state of danger,’’ said Julie Lindberg, founder and curator of the Rufus Porter Museum in nearby Bridgton, which will soon own the Poor murals. “Our position is always to keep these murals in place, but this is a special situation.’’

In a process that began last April, the Poor murals have been cut away from the house itself, in preparation for relocation to Bridgton. Entire walls have been jacked up and braced, old plaster reglued to its original lathing, and large panels reframed to sturdy them for shipment. Extrication work is expected to end by mid-summer. Once in Bridgton, they’ll be reinstalled in a new downtown annex being built for the Porter Museum.

The Haineses’ house, which had been on the market for two years without a nibble, will be rebuilt to the point where it becomes marketable again.

So how, precisely, does one remove an 18-foot section of antique plaster wall without it buckling, or crumbling to dust? Very carefully.

“Fortunately, because the house is not being demolished, we have more time to glue,’’ said David Ottinger, an Arlington contractor and preservationist who’s supervising the extrication.

On a recent June morning, Ottinger and crew were moving an 8-by-9-foot bedroom panel with extreme care, gently sliding it backward a foot or two using 2-by-6 braces and a crowbar. Near the bottom of the panel was a hole made for a woodstove vent, a reminder of how vulnerable these murals had once been to fire damage.

What makes this project so unusual, Ottinger noted, is that not only are complete rooms being removed, but they’ll be reconnected architecturally, giving a clear picture of how they looked in situ. This, too, is a source of controversy, however, as some preservationists argue that any such relocation does permanent damage to the artwork.

“We’ve heard that, yes, but there are lots of mitigating circumstances here,’’ said Tom Johnson, vice chairman of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “This was heavily discussed within Maine’s preservationist community, and plenty of concerns were raised. In the end, though, we thought this was a very well thought-out solution.’’

The decision to remove the murals dates back to 1975, when the Haineses were shopping for an older house near Portland and were shown the Norton House, then occupied by renters.

“I was stunned by the walls,’’ recalled Glenn Haines. “I didn’t know they were there.’’ The house itself was in poor shape, however, from the roof on down. It would be seven more years before the couple bought it, at which point they were determined to save the murals from further damage. Since they owned another home nearby, the Haineses opened the house to family members at first, stipulating that the upstairs rooms remain unoccupied. In 1996, they moved in themselves.

“Fifteen years ago, we considered restoring some walls and got a lot of different opinions,’’ he said. “We finally decided not to, though, because we didn’t want to do anything we couldn’t undo.’’

Two years ago, they concluded that owning two old houses was too much. At that point, Porter Museum board members asked the Haineses if they’d consider donating the walls, not selling them. The couple’s initial reaction was negative. Quickly, however, they began seeing it as a way to sell their house while preserving the murals for future generations. Folks in East Baldwin supported them, Glenn Haines says. Their one unbreakable covenant: The museum could never allow the murals to pass into private hands.

Owning a home with murals by Porter or his disciples isn’t always an attractive selling point, according to Robert Boggs, education director for the Porter Museum. Many have faded or been damaged over time, he said, and putting a monetary value on the artwork is nearly impossible. In 1965, a similar extrication took place at the Howe House in Westwood. There, murals painted by Porter himself were removed before the house was torn down. They, too, now reside in Bridgton.

Murals like the ones Poor painted in East Baldwin might fetch six-figure prices from collectors, said Lindberg. In many senses, though, they’re priceless.

“We’ve owned the house since 1982, and every time I’d walk through it I’d see something new,’’ said Glenn Haines, standing at the top of his staircase. “Even now, I’m amazed Poor did so many things in such subtle ways.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at