Innovator George W. Adams, 64, Injected New Life Into Capitol Frescoes

Adams was a self-trained engineer who designed systems to test the strength of walls and detect and digitally map defects without damaging the frescoes. He would then inject material that would shore up the walls.
Adams was a self-trained engineer who designed systems to test the strength of walls and detect and digitally map defects without damaging the frescoes. He would then inject material that would shore up the walls. (By Paul Vignola)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

The 150-year-old frescoes in the U.S. Capitol's Brumidi Corridor can overwhelm a visitor's senses with rich detail, graceful forms and vivid color. Everywhere you look, the flora and fauna of America, portraits of historical figures and metaphorical references abound.

George W. Adams saw even more.

A self-trained engineer with a deep appreciation for art, Mr. Adams looked at the wall beneath the plaster and found deteriorating masonry in numerous areas. He designed a system to test the strength of the mortar and walls and to detect and digitally map defects without damaging the art, which is painted directly on the mortar, in the age-old style of frescoes. Then he invented a system to inject material that would shore up the walls.

While working on the structural integrity of the walls for the past 13 years, he became familiar with the exquisite portraits of squirrels and mice, flowers and fruits and birds of a hundred species that Constantino Brumidi painted between 1856 and 1880. From his brightly lit perch in the Senate hallways in the late afternoons and evenings, Mr. Adams could also identify the coveys of dark-suited legislators and lobbyists as they flew from the committee rooms and hideaway offices to roost elsewhere.

He pointed out themes in the art that helped his wife, conservator Christiana Cunningham-Adams, resolve mysteries about recurring color and figures that tied the massive work together. She has spent the past dozen or more years painstakingly chipping away at the layers and layers -- 15 layers in some instances -- of old varnish and inept overpainting that has hidden the true genius of Brumidi's work for more than a century.

Brumidi, dubbed by fans as the "Michelangelo of the Capitol," based his work on frescoes in the Vatican, where he lived and worked before immigrating. His masterpiece, "The Apotheosis of Washington," a colorful fresco in the eye of the Capitol dome, took 11 months to paint in 1865. In 1877, at age 72, he began work on the "Frieze of American History," which encircles the base of the dome with scenes from American history, such as the landing of Christopher Columbus and Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas. He died before completing it.

Mr. Adams's work is not yet complete, either, but an assistant will carry it on. George Webster Adams died March 2 at home in Cambridge, Md., of lung cancer. He was 64.

There are ways to study the great artists of the past and to learn how to preserve and restore their works. There are places to go to become deeply familiar with the canon of Baroque or Renaissance or Romantic artists. But there are no such places to learn innovation, creative problem-solving or the unusual combination of skills for a material engineer who loves art, history and nature.

Mr. Adams, a native of New Haven, Conn., trained at Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, although he did not graduate from either school. An omnivorous talent, he went into naval architecture, then aircraft engineering and later ran a firm that distributed photovoltaic solar energy cells.

In 1988, he turned to conservation of fine art, forming a company with his wife. Together, they restored the Jules Guerin murals in the Lincoln Memorial, the Works Progress Administration paintings at the Departments of Justice and Interior, and murals at Fisk University in Nashville, for which they won a National Trust for Historic Preservation Award.

The Capitol Brumidi project, though, was the biggest by far. Working as a contractor for the Architect of the Capitol, Mr. Adams joined with the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Miami and an Italian university to use a laser Doppler vibrometer to probe the stability of the mortar and plaster. The vibration-based method proved significantly less intrusive and more detailed than older ways of testing the walls.

His work was more than diagnostic, so once he knew where weaknesses were, Mr. Adams set about solving the problem of deteriorating plaster. He created a system that injected a consolidating mixture into the walls at a consistent pressure. Passersby in the Capitol, who often stopped to ask about the work, said it reminded them of hospital intravenous setups. And in some ways, he was doing emergency surgery on the underpinnings of Brumidi's priceless art.

In the dark and crowded Brumidi Corridors, the renovation work has exposed bright, lively and soft-edged frescoes of Mediterranean colors. Under proper lighting and after careful cleaning, they glow with life and optimism.

"Every single inch is a discovery,'' Cunningham-Adams said, pointing out the exquisitely detailed bird feathers that had been painted over and the corrected tilt of a squirrel's head. "Together, we were able to break the silence of this art."

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