Historic downtown train depot mural getting a major face-lift

The mural on the east wall of the downtown train depot once stood over the train ticketing counters, which have since been moved.
The mural on the east wall of the downtown train depot once stood over the train ticketing counters, which have since been moved. City of Sacramento

One of Sacramento’s grandest civic art pieces is getting its youthful zest back this spring.

The massive mural high on the east wall of the downtown train depot depicts the launching of the transcontinental railroad in 1863, a project that would prove to be nearly as important to Sacramento as the Gold Rush 14 years earlier. But the epic story it tells has dimmed considerably. Nearly a century of bustle in the depot hall has browned the mural’s surface with dirt and nicotine stains.

A delicate cleaning and restoration process got underway Monday. Working on scaffolding, preservationists will rub cotton swabs with cleaning solution in small circles over the mural face.

It’s part of a $30 million rehabilitation of the old Fourth and I streets structure by its owner, the city of Sacramento, and by Rudolph and Sletten, a Silicon Valley-based contractor with offices in Roseville. When restoration is complete at the end of 2016, the building will be transformed not only into a modern transit hub, but also a venue for offices, stores and restaurants.

The panoramic mural, whose leading figures are painted nearly life-size, is one of the many historic elements of the 1926 structure, now known as Sacramento Valley Station, that will be preserved. It was painted by artist John MacQuarrie, who specialized in depot murals around the country, often giving major events a heroic feel.

Standing amid families and business leaders at the center of the mural are the state’s Big Four railroad backers, Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins. Railroad engineer Theodore Judah stands off to the side looking on. Steamships and sailing ships float on the Sacramento River in the background. Families watch from a Conestoga wagon. Some men watch on horseback, others squat in the dirt. An American flag waves overhead.

For the next year, the mural and the hall’s vaulted roof will remain hidden from public view, walled off from depot users by scaffolding holding a construction platform above the waiting room. “We call it the dance floor,” said Garrett Lamberti, the project manager for Rudolph and Sletten, standing on it during a tour Monday of the project.

Preservationists from the New York-based firm of Evergreen Architectural Arts will spend the next eight weeks tending to the art piece, cleaning it, repainting portions, reattaching peeled seams and applying varnish. Crews also will repair decorative medallions in the vaulted roof, restore chandeliers and repaint the walls, mimicking the original sandy texture, Lamberti said.

Preservationists have cleaned several test spots on the mural, allowing the artwork’s original colors to show through. “It’s very exciting,” Lamberti said. “You can see how bright and colorful it is.”

Kumiko Hisano, architectural conservator for Evergreen Architectural Arts, whose company has worked on Grand Central Station, the Empire State Building and the U.S. Capitol Building, is leading the effort. She said Monday that she is still doing a condition assessment of the mural but hasn’t found anything troubling yet.

“It is in fair condition, or good, considering the age, and since it hasn’t been touched very much or restored (over the years),” she said. “You see small paint loss and cracks. Those are the areas we have to consolidate with tiny brushes. It is really dusty. There are a couple layers of dirt and soot and a layer of nicotine, so we will be removing that.

“You can see a night and day difference. It will be really rewarding.”

Hisano’s work is being overseen by local preservationists, including Melisa Gaudreau, an architect with Page and Turnbull, who was on site Monday. Gaudreau said the cleanup will help Sacramentans and visitors see and better appreciate a piece of history.

“The mural reminds us how transportation and connectivity spur growth and development,” Gaudreau said. “The transcontinental railroad fundamentally changed the development of Sacramento and our region. It’s nice once in a while to have a reminder of how far we have come and what this meant as a moment in time for this region.

“Hopefully more people will have a chance to view it in all its glory.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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