WHALLONSBURG - A historic painted curtain at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall has been professionally restored so it might once again grace the stage.
The colorful curtain, entitled "Offshore," depicts a derelict sailboat cast against a rocky shoreline. It was used countless times at the grange hall throughout the past 80-plus years.
According to Whallonsburg Civic Association project manager Ted Cornell, the Whallonsburg Grange Hall, like many theaters and opera houses in the early 20th century, used painted curtains as backdrops for theatrical productions.
"They were sets," Cornell explained. "They would roll up and roll down, and you'd be looking at a forest or an apartment or a city street."
The gigantic murals were hand-painted by a variety of artists, many employing elaborate trompe-loeil techniques to give the illusion of three dimensions. Each theater often had their own custom-made "grand drape" that served as the default background and often depicted a curtain being drawn back to reveal a dramatic scene.
Painted curtains slowly fell out of use, however, and most theaters either disposed of them or put them in storage. Whallonsburg's grand drape became mainly a decorative piece used only for special occasions.
It was one of six sets of curtains volunteers found tucked away in the grange hall balcony while cleaning and renovating the nearly century-old building last year, which were painted by Cavendish, Vt. artist William H. Bailey, circa 1928.
Essex native Emily Gardner Phillips has been leading the restoration project on the grand drape, and said she remembers seeing it displayed when she was young.
"She grew up here on the Gardner farm and went away to school to study art conservation," said Cornell. "She's undertaken this project as a benefit to the community."
Phillips moved back to her hometown last year after spending more than eight years preserving painted curtains as part of the Vermont Painted Curtain Project.
Aided by local volunteers and a grant from the Honeybee Foundation, Phillips has cleaned most of the grange hall's curtains to be better preserved in storage.
The WCA, which oversees the grange hall and its renovations, had different plans for the grand drape, however, selecting it to be restored and re-hung.
"I think the goal in this project, just like the one in Vermont, is to stabilize these curtains," said Phillips, "just get them back to the point where they can be hung and enjoyed in a safe manner."
"Once they get some idea that the curtains can go back on the stage, they get excited and very happy," said Christine Hadsel, director of the Vermont Painted Curtain Project. "Out of the 185 curtains we've restored in Vermont, we've probably hung 150 of them." A survey is ongoing to locate painted curtains still in existence, Hadsel said, in hopes they can be preserved.
"The idea is to keep them around for at least another 100 years," she said.
Phillips and Hadsel spent several hours at the grange hall June 15 and 16, repairing tears and blemishes on the grand drape and preparing it for future use. The curtain is expected to be hung Monday, July 5.
Cornell said returning the painted curtain to some of its former glory will bring more authenticity to the building.
"It's a wonderful thing to have, and I think it's a signature piece," said Cornell. "It's a joy to look at; it distinguishes the place the way a painting does."
"It stands out," he added, "and you won't forget it."