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November 16, 2014

Plasterwork Artisan renaissance

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Ornamental plaster enjoying renaissance

By Samantha Melamed   THE PHILADELHIA INQUIRER
                                                                                              CHARLES FOX PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER PHOTOS
David Flaharty has done plasterwork for the White House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.

 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 out the pieces, he began salvaging them to sell at a flea market on the weekends.   Then he learned that he could make rubber molds of the 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.  

Today, there may be a greater appreciation for such architectural detail, but there aren’t nearly as many plaster artisans as there were in the heyday of Victorian 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 high-end interior designers who are adopting the Victorians’ interest in ceiling ornamentation.  

Flaharty uses molds based on old plasterwork to create it anew in his Green Lane, Pa., studio.

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.   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” because of their midcentury construction.  

  • In the White House, Flaharty 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.  

Flaharty works much as his predecessors did a century ago, carving molds or making them from existing pieces, then casting them in plaster. 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.  

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 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.  

He also works on new construction, where demand for crown moldings and decorative period ceilings has been particularly strong.   “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.”  

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, but Laran Bronze in Chester, Pa., hasn’t had a call for it yet, said owner Larry Welker.  

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.”

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