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Restoration begins on Davis Art Center decorative ceilings

Jan. 8, 2013
Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center Ceiling Restoratio...
Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center Ceiling Restoratio...: International Fine Art Conservation Studios is starting restoration on decorative 1930's lobby ceilings at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in Fort Myers Monday, January 7. Video by Sarah Coward.
International Fine Art Conservation Studios conservator Greg Steward vacuums away dust and fine plaster powder during an initial assessment of the decorative ceiling at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in Fort Myers Monday. / Sarah Coward/

More about the restoration

• Atlanta company IFACS will restore the damaged plaster ceilings in the Davis Art Center’s first-floor lobbies.
• The restoration of the ceilings is expected to take at least eight or nine weeks. Workers will use brushes, vacuum cleaners, sponges and other tools to remove the loose debris, paint and plaster. They’ll make plaster molds of the surviving sculpture, and then use those to create casts to fill in the damaged portions. Finally, they’ll repaint the additions to match the preexisting burnt umber and burnt sienna tones as closely as possible.
• Workers will also restore the cut-stone covering on the upper half of the lobby walls. The lower half is covered in marble.
• The ceilings are one of the few decorative elements that remain from the original 1933 building. Their flora-and-fauna motif is echoed in the building’s exterior, the former postmaster’s office and elsewhere.
• The original decorative ceiling is made of plaster of Paris mixed with Hessian jute and horse hair to maintain its shape. IFACS will probably use plaster mixed with jute and glass fiber, said CEO Geoffrey Steward.
• The ceilings feature metal-and-glass chandeliers based on blueprints of the post office’s original chandeliers. They were created by local sculptor James DiGiorgio. The chandeliers will be removed during the restoration.
SOURCES: News-Press archives, interviews and


“Ever hear of ‘The Sanibel Stoop?’ ” Jim Griffith asks. “Well, we have our own version of that here.”

Griffith calls it “The Davis Center Neck Crane.”

Instead of stooping to find seashells on the beach, visitors to The Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center tilt their heads back to gawk at the entryway ceiling. That’s where they’ll find seashells, flowers, lizards, cranes, palm trees and other visions of Florida plants and animals — all painted and carved into the ornate plaster.

“It’s a work of art,” said Griffith, the center’s director. “It’s beautiful.”

And it’s about to get even more beautiful, if restoration work goes as planned.

Employees from the Atlanta restoration company IFACS arrived Monday at the downtown Fort Myers building and started work immediately. In the next two or three months, they plan to clear away the debris and loose plaster from the center’s two decorative ceilings, replace the damaged portions with plaster casts made from the surviving art, and then paint everything to match the original portions.

IFACS — short for International Fine Art Conservation Studios — is the company that restored the center’s windows in 2006. It has also done work at The Edison & Ford Winter Estates and New York City’s Grand Central Station.

Griffith has dreamed about restoring the center’s ceilings since he took over the building a decade ago and turned it into an art center.

“I’m amazed that it’s finally happening,” Griffith said.

The carved-plaster ceilings were created along with the original Neoclassical-style U.S. post office, which opened in 1933. The two ceilings — on either side of the first-floor main gallery — were covered when the building became a federal courthouse in 1965. Workers drilled holes into the plaster to hang air-conditioning ducts and drop ceilings.

Griffith is still stunned that was allowed to happen.

“Somebody in Washington D.C. probably said, ‘Go ahead and poke holes in the ceiling,’” he said. “You just have to wonder what they were thinking.”

IFACS Chief Executive Officer Geoffrey M.J. Steward said he’s never seen anything quite like those ceilings. He’s overseeing the restoration, along with son Greg Steward.

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“It’s sort of Art Deco with Florida overtones,” Geoffrey Steward said. “But there are also some classical elements, some Greek Revival elements. It’s quite unique.”

His son agreed.

“It’s just beautiful plaster work,” Greg Steward said. “The detail is very sharp. … Nobody does this kind of work anymore.”

Assistant Director Devon Morreale calls the center one of the most beautiful buildings in Southwest Florida, and she said the ceilings are probably its most striking element. “It’s a unique treasure.”

The ceilings are part of an ongoing restoration of the historic building. The current phase — including plans to renovate the upper floors — was paid for by donations and a $650,000 state grant. The ceiling project will cost about $150,000, Morreale said.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing,” Morreale said. “We’ve been working toward being able to do this. With that grant, we’re finally being able to realize a lot of dreams.

“It’s very exciting. It’s exciting to see this building come back to life.”

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