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This Old Statehouse: Interview with Dick Labertew

posted on April 3, 2001 at 11:03 AM

Dick Labertew
Lead Restoration Painter


Interviewed February 14, 2000

JACK SHEPARD: Tell me what your job is here at the Capitol.

DICK LABERTEW: My job here is to restore all the decorative painting on the plastered walls and ceiling.

JACK SHEPARD: You've been at this for a number of years?

DICK LABERTEW: I first worked in here in 1971. I was right out of apprentice school. I remember coming over here with a guy from the company I worked for. And he took us into the Auditor's Office and up to one of the ceilings. He said, "This is what we're going to do; we're going to restore this ceiling." I looked up there, and all I could see were these hundreds of colors and patterns. It was pretty exciting.

JACK SHEPARD: But as far as working at the Capitol full time, when did that start?

DICK LABERTEW: It started in 1979.

JACK SHEPARD: So from 1979 until 2000, you've been working at restoring these walls and ceilings back to their original condition?

DICK LABERTEW: Yes, 20 years.

JACK SHEPARD: And do you expect it to be finished pretty soon?

DICK LABERTEW: I wouldn't say pretty soon. A lot of it was "painted out."

JACK SHEPARD: Painted out? What do you mean by that?

DICK LABERTEW: It was just completely painted out. They just painted it out over the years. Some of it was probably because of water damage and cracking. Instead of repairing and restoring it back then they just painted it out, probably because of cost reasons.

JACK SHEPARD: They painted over all of these beautiful wall decorations? And your job has been to find the originals and restore them.

DICK LABERTEW: Right. First we have to find the designs and the colors. If they didn't do a very good job of priming it, or the primer didn't adhere to the original, we can go in and scrape it off with razor blade scrapers. A lot of times that doesn't work; a lot of times they did a good job. The adhesion is real strong, so we have to use paint remover, chemical paint removers. We go through the paint a layer at a time to find the original. Of course that distorts the paint color. It causes a lot of problems. But, we usually will dissect the paint then, look at it through a lighted magnifier to get the original color.

JACK SHEPARD: Do you feel like an explorer or a scientist when you do that?

DICK LABERTEW: Both. That's one of the fun parts of the job. That's the exciting part of it. It's one of the most time consuming parts of the job, too. We patch the plaster. We do all the not-so-fun parts of the job too, you know, a lot of the dirty work. Some people come in here and think, "Boy what a neat job. He gets to put all these pretty designs on." But we have to do all the dirty work, too.

JACK SHEPARD: Explain the processes of getting the walls back to the condition that they were in originally.

DICK LABERTEW: In this room we actually scraped the whole room down because the paint wasn't adhered that well. But when we did get it scraped down we discovered that there were large sections that were completely gone, probably from water damage. So the first thing we have to find is the design, and we document all our colors. We take tracings of all the designs, and then we go from there. And we make new stencils. We match all the colors by hand. And then we start re-applying them. A good part of the work we do is stencil work. You cut out a stencil, and pounce paint through it. For a lot of the intricate stuff you perforate paper and pounce chalk through it. It makes an outline and then you do all the free-hand stuff.

JACK SHEPARD: And if there are more colors, there is more work involved?

DICK LABERTEW: Right. And there's such a variation in the patterns. Some of them that look like they're really intricate and would take a lot of time are quicker than the ones that look fairly simple just because of the layout and getting everything to come out precisely.

JACK SHEPARD: It's not always paint is it?

DICK LABERTEW: There's a lot of gold leaf in the building. It's 23-carat gold. And there are glazes, so it's not just wall paint.

JACK SHEPARD: What are the most difficult parts of this job?

DICK LABERTEW: There are a lot of difficult parts. Sometimes just occupying an area and setting up scaffolding around people who work here is difficult. The treasurer worked in here the whole time we were here, underneath us. So we had to scaffold around him, where we didn't interrupt his work schedule too.

JACK SHEPARD: So you'd have to allow people to continue doing their work?

DICK LABERTEW: Right. It would be a lot easier for us if they could just vacate the area.

JACK SHEPARD: So were there special problems adapting today's materials to work?

DICK LABERTEW: Yes, a lot of the materials have changed. Like the lead-based paint. We don't use lead-based paint anymore. We have to give it maybe two or three coats where they got by with one coat. So it's taken us a little more time to do it.

JACK SHEPARD: What's been your impression of the work that was done back then?

DICK LABERTEW: Well, it's excellent workmanship. They had hundreds of artists from all over the world working here. So, it's first class as far as I'm concerned.

JACK SHEPARD: You were impressed with the amount of time they must have taken.

DICK LABERTEW: They didn't cut any corners.

JACK SHEPARD: How about you guys?

DICK LABERTEW: We try to duplicate it as close as we can. The materials are different; but as far as the workmanship, we're probably doing it real close to how they were actually doing it. Different brushes than what they probably used. The advantage they had over us is there were a lot of them. Like in this particular room, they had a foreman and I think five workers. When we did this we had three people. We're down to two people now, so it takes us a little longer.

JACK SHEPARD: How did you know that they had all those guys?

DICK LABERTEW: We found the names of the people that actually worked in this office. There were five people working in here.

JACK SHEPARD: Did it make you feel in any way different working here as opposed to another building?

DICK LABERTEW: Oh, sure, it really does. It's a one of a kind building. It's special; it's for everybody. It's our heritage, so sure it does. I think I'll probably realize that a little more when I no longer work here, but yeah, it makes me proud.

JACK SHEPARD: When do you think that will be? How much more work do you plan to do here?

DICK LABERTEW: It's a guestimate but I'm saying it will be probably 15 to 20 more years.

JACK SHEPARD: So you've been working on it since '79.


JACK SHEPARD: Just a little over 20 years?


JACK SHEPARD: You may have up to 20 more years?


JACK SHEPARD: It's going to represent a good healthy chunk of your career.

DICK LABERTEW: Oh, yes, it is. It's a big part of my life.

JACK SHEPARD: What are you going to tell your grandchildren?

DICK LABERTEW: It makes me proud to know that this is going to be here for my kids and grandkids. It's a good feeling.

JACK SHEPARD: What do you say to people who say, "They're spending all this money rebuilding and restoring the Capitol."

DICK LABERTEW: Well, I think it's money well spent. This is for everybody. This is for the whole state. This is our heritage here. Once this building's gone we're not going to get another one. It's just not going to happen. It would just be too costly. This had to have been a magnificent place. Can you imagine back in 1884, this huge building out in the middle of nowhere? They took a lot of pride...a lot of pride. And we should keep that.

JACK SHEPARD: Have you gotten some of your information from photographs?

DICK LABERTEW: In this building we've been fortunate. We've found most every design and color. We also do restoration at Terrace Hill. Out there we did have to work from some photographs because some of the plastered ceilings had been re-plastered so it was actually gone. But here, we found everything. So we know it's right.

JACK SHEPARD: Why all this has been necessary? What are the reasons that all this painting had to be done.

DICK LABERTEW: Well, there are a lot of reasons. A lot of it has been painted out. We don't actually know why; we're just speculating. Maybe water damage, maybe they didn't want to spend the money to restore it at that time. Maybe they didn't have the money.

JACK SHEPARD: You're pretty proud when you can go back and you can hardly tell where you've been.

DICK LABERTEW: Exactly. People come in and they say, "Well, I can't see where you've been working." That makes us feel good. That's about the best compliment that they can give us.

JACK SHEPARD: There are plenty of rooms that you spent two or three months in?

DICK LABERTEW: Oh sure. Usually we're in the rooms for a few months. In this particular room, we were in here for over a year. A lot of times we don't come back for a few months, and that's when we really appreciate it. I'm kind of awestruck too, when I come in this room and just take a look around and see the hundreds of colors and the patterns. It keeps you coming back tomorrow.

JACK SHEPARD: It seems like it'd take a pretty patient type of person to work on this.

DICK LABERTEW: There's no fast way to do it. You can't get in a hurry; it just doesn't work. Some days are better than others. It can be real frustrating at times, real frustrating.

JACK SHEPARD: Will you describe the procedures that we're going to be putting on tape today?

DICK LABERTEW: We go in and put on the base coat. We have to let that dry. And we'll come back with our stencil pattern the following day. We have to let that dry. It's nothing fast. Take it one step at a time. Sometimes there are two or three different stencils to make one pattern. It's a slow process.

JACK SHEPARD: And lots of times you're trying to weave it back to the original pattern.

DICK LABERTEW: Right. A lot of times a recreation is easier than a restoration, because you have to be so precise. The paint colors change over the years. I don't care what kind of paint you use, they do. So a lot of times, even the paint that we actually put on there three or four years ago will not match, so we have to alter that to match. Yeah, a restoration is more difficult than a recreation really and more time consuming in a lot of ways.

JACK SHEPARD: There comes a point when you're looking at a room that's got a lot of damage and you ask yourself, "Do I start over, or do I salvage it?

DICK LABERTEW: Right, if the original's still there we don't damage it. It's going to be an ongoing process. I hope the state will keep a restoration painter forever here, as long as the building's here. They need one.

JACK SHEPARD: Tell me about when you discovered these signatures up there.

DICK LABERTEW: We'd just set up the scaffold after we were starting to clean the room down--we always clean it down first. And we discovered these names up on a molding up there. You couldn't see from the floor. But, that was pretty exciting. That was the first time we'd ever seen the original designs. It says "In the year 1885." so we knew that was the original names, so . yeah that was pretty exciting. We find names all over . not the originals, but people that have worked on the building. They might have been the people that were coming in and just painting the walls out, but a lot of times they leave their signature. It's kind of interesting to find.

JACK SHEPARD: You guys left your signatures in there?

DICK LABERTEW: Sure we have. We varnished over the top of theirs to try to preserve it a little longer, but yeah, we figure if we're up in here for a year, year and a half, we deserve to put our names up there too. So, yeah, we put 'em up there. Hopefully, somebody else when they see it in a hundred years, they'll think that's kind of exciting too.

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