Ornamental plaster: An old art form arises from the trash

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

PHILADELPHIA — Thirty-five years ago, when John Doherty was doing rehab work for Campus Apartments, removing old plasterwork to make way for drywall, he was struck by the beauty of the buildings’ antique plaster flourishes — all destined for the landfill.

Instead of throwing the pieces out, he began salvaging them to sell at a flea market on the weekends. Then he learned that he could make rubber molds of the intricate pieces and replicate them as many times as he wanted, for use in his own designs. "It became my own Home Depot," he said.

Doherty, now based in Delaware County, Pa., started one of the area’s first salvage businesses, with a sideline in plasterwork. "It was the perfect time in Philly, because everything was being blown up and thrown away."

Today, there may be a greater appreciation for such architectural detail, but not nearly as many plaster artisans as there were in the heyday of those Victorian Philadelphia mansions.

The remaining craftspeople see demand from historic sites such as the White House, serious institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not-so-serious institutions such as Las Vegas casinos, and, closer to home, any number of high-end interior designers who are adopting the Victorians’ interest in ceiling ornamentation.

David Flaharty got into the business in the ’70s, mostly by coincidence. He was a sculptor who rented studio space from a plasterer and began going along on jobs.

They worked together on St. Monica Church in South Philadelphia, which was being rebuilt after a fire. Then, their work caught the attention of Edward Vason Jones, architect for the White House during Richard M. Nixon’s administration.

That led to more than 20 years of commissions, including decorating the State Department’s reception rooms and the secretary of state’s office, which had "looked like a Howard Johnson’s" because of their mid-century construction.

In the White House, he has done what has to be among the most televised ceiling medallions — the one in the Blue Room used each year to hook up the lights for the official White House Christmas tree. "Every year, I see it on TV," he said.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, he took handprints from the grandchildren of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan to cast in bronze and lay in the White House garden. (He said he’ll only do this for grandchildren, and so has not been back to the White House for a handprint since.)

Flaharty works much as his predecessors did a century ago, carving molds or making them from existing pieces, and then casting them in plaster — though he sometimes substitutes sturdier synthetic materials, such as urethane rubber. He has amassed about 300 molds of decorative elements that can be reconfigured in endless variations, to make large ceiling medallions or small ones, or crown moldings that range from streamlined to baroque.

Because so many shops have closed, James Kuryloski, owner of Felber Ornamental Plastering Corp. in Norristown, Pa., gets calls from across the country for specialized jobs.

His recent projects have included providing lavish adornments for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., and working from old photographs and paintings to carve molds for plasterwork in the Maryland Statehouse’s Old Senate Chamber, which has been restored to how it looked when George Washington resigned his commission as Continental Army general there.

After 32 years in the business, Kuryloski has collected around 4,000 molds. He uses them not just for restoration work, but also for new construction, where demand has been particularly strong for crown moldings and decorative period ceilings.

"We’ve been doing a lot of English strapwork ceilings in the last year or two," he said. In those, the entire ceiling is covered with geometric plaster shapes — a process that could cost up to $10,000.

"A lot of people now don’t want their ceilings to be just flat and boring," he said. "They want a modern house that might have lighting and sprinklers and speakers up on the ceiling, and then they put a decorative ceiling on top of it. They want the best of the old and the new."

How evolving technology might influence the future of this craft remains an open question. Some industrious designers have been tinkering with 3-D scanning of damaged historic plaster pieces, which can then be repaired digitally and re-created with 3-D printers.

Laran Bronze, in Chester, Pa., can do that, according to owner Larry Welker. But he has not had a call for it yet, he said.

For now, Flaharty and others will keep doing it the old-fashioned way — and trying to recruit the next generation of artisans to continue their work.

"It’s a dying art," he said, "but I’d like to pass on my trade."