— 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
Bronze, in Chester, Pa., can do that, according to owner
Larry Welker. But he has not had a call for it yet, he
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.
a dying art," he said, "but I’d like to pass
on my trade."