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Artisan: High Relief

Decorative plaster restoration requires the experienced hands of a craftsman.


rically, to put things back the way they were."

Sometimes a building, such as the Tredegar Trust office downtown, sits open to rain and snow for decades before MacArthur is called in for the rescue. That building's ornate art deco ceilings were crumbling, but repairing them was satisfying and even wonderful, the plasterer says, "because it is one of the most beautiful ceilings in Richmond. I like to look around and see other people's craftsmanship — it's really interesting. That research just comes with the job."

There's no shortage of source material here in residential and commercial buildings, and MacArthur is apt to look up first when he enters historic structures to see how the crown molding and ceiling ornaments have been applied, and how well the plaster surfaces are holding up. "Plaster is the very best you can do [in choosing building materials]," he says. "It beats drywall, and even a wood wall can burn. But with plaster, you can straighten out a crooked wall, or do decorative work and preserve a part of history."

To apply plaster well involves experience and no small measure of precision and patience. As MacArthur attaches 3,000 dogwood flowers and leaves to a library cornice in the extraordinary Hancock-Wirt-Caskie house downtown, he acknowledges that time, too, is suspended as he works from the scaffold, moving slowly from section to section of wall and ceiling. He's been at this project off and on for six years now. Its owner, Aubrey "Bunky" Bowles, has been working on the restoration even longer — 20 years so far and a few more still ahead. "It's nice to see more progress than retrogression," Bowles says with a laugh, "and having to take it slowly, you make fewer mistakes, so that is a benefit. The plaster work that Bill has done is really magnificent."

In two rooms, MacArthur installed medallions that he created from patterns Bowles chose from a book of 1806-era designs by Asher Benjamin and Daniel Raynerd.

Flowers, bows, acanthus garlands and other motifs surround the rooms in elegant layers; MacArthur's workmanship is further enhanced by historically correct colors discovered after multiple layers of paint were peeled away. The blues and browns, golds and sages are a lively contrast to the creamy white plaster with its high-relief details.

MacArthur, though experienced in working with the city's most beautiful houses, is no snob about the routine jobs he's also asked to do. Repairing water damage, fixing cracked walls and doing the mundane tasks of plastering are as much a part of his work ethic as the painstaking restoration of plantation houses and mansions.

In his spare time, MacArthur is archiving molds of medallions so that he can pass along examples of his work to future craftsmen in the trade, if he can find any. "Plastering has been around for thousands of years," MacArthur says, "and it's still as primitive as it's ever been. Spreading mud is hard work. But I'll do it until I die, and hope that I can teach other people how to do it too."


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