On January 9, 1930, the Dallas Times-Herald announced that Warner Brothers was building a $125,000 film exchange. Along with a drawing of the soon-to-completed building, was a description of its function and contents: “The first floor will be devoted entirely to shipping, the second floor to offices of First National Pictures, Inc., a subsidiary of Warner Bros., and the third floor to the general offices of Warner Bros., the Vitaphone Distributing corporation and M. Witmark & Son Music Publishing Company.” (Vitaphone was a sound film system; Warner Bros created the Vitaphone Corporation in 1926.)
In 2011, The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church purchased 508 Park. We committed to restoring 508 to its 1930s grandeur, but we had to assemble clues and information from archives and old newspapers on microfilm. When we stood on the roof of 508 and looked at what had once been the Warner Bros screening room, we could see still see the words “Warner Bros.” But the words underneath were hard to make out.
In December 2011, from the Jack L. Warner archives at the University of Southern California, we received this photo.
This provided some aid in helping to identify some of the wording. But in order to restore it, we would need to gather more information. The Project Committee for 508 Park, working with Phoenix Restoration, brought in art conservator Michael van Enter, of van Enter Studio Ltd, to help us. Brick is porous. The sign had been sandblasted at some point in the past. In addition, when the fourth floor room was no longer needed as a screening room, windows had been added that cut through the sign. During the restoration of the exterior, we had the windows removed and bricks restored. Phoenix Restoration very carefully used bricks that had also had northern exposure, so that similarly weathered bricks from the building would be installed. The new “old” bricks looked clean next to the original bricks, and it became obvious that there was a darker background paint that had been used.
To provide answers that the photograph could not, van Enter went to the wall and forensically examined it using a portable field microscope. With the microscope, he could examine the layers of paint and see directly into the pores of the bricks. “We were working with forensic ghosting that had been left on the brick itself.” He determined that the original colors were white and Paynes Grey. Paynes Grey is a very popular blue-grey paint in the United States often referred to in sign painting as midnight blue. van Enter said, “Paynes Grey was an obvious choice, because historically black paint doesn’t read right; somehow, when put against white, it makes too severe a contrast, and makes it difficult to read. Paynes Grey looks black from a distance.” van Enter also determined that the white paint had been painted directly on to the brick, and then the Paynes Grey had been applied.
They matched the pigment, and used historical sign writing paint, using the same material that was used 85 years.
van Enter brought in David Carapetyan, a skilled sign painter, to carefully trace any original still visible line that he could see that would match up with the artwork. Much of it was gone, but there was enough to get the exact lettering. The curving upper words, “Warner Bros” were the most visible. And, the lower curved words, “First National Pictures” could be seen. Carapetyan explains, “When we first looked at the job, we thought, ‘yeah, this is not too hard...,’ and it was pretty much as we had thought on the Warner Brothers Pictures and First National Pictures. We used the existent top and bottom lines of the opposing arcs that formed each line, and extrapolated the missing letters using the same stroke width and letter form as what we could make out from the old sign. Pretty simple stuff, really, with opportunity to apply theory and check that against what was authentically -if barely visible- before our very eyes.”
But the “Vitaphone” wording in the center provided more of a challenge.
Renovating/bringing new life to the old Warner Bros/Vitaphone sign was both interesting and challenging. There were some good bones there already, as far as the sign goes; but it was like working with an old fossil remnant in paleontology, as there was barely a remnant there to pull any lines from on Vitaphone. Looking and looking, trying different times of the day to catch varying light, wetting the wall to see if that brought any clarity to the old sign, we were able to decipher a good portion of the "A" and "P", with a smattering of the "T", top of the "V", maybe some of the "I" and "H". But there was almost nothing to be found of the "O", "N" or "E".
After historical research on the variations of Vitaphone lettering style, they realized it was not the same font as the upper and lower curving words but a vibrating letter style. After van Enter and Carapetyan completed researching, they concluded that they could create the closest match to the wording that was humanly possible, suitable, and historically correct.
Carapetyan said, “It was a bit of craft, a bit of detective work, some judgment calls based on 33 years of experience, and the rest was just work.” van Enter concludes, “From all our forensic information, our historical analysis of the paint, and our research, we have created as close an approximation, a facsimile of the original
Eighty-five years to the day the Warner Bros building was announced, we celebrated the completion of this aspect of the process. Research, skilled artisans and contractors, and our donors made this possible.
The 508 Park Avenue mural restoration was unveiled on January 9, 2015.
Video ©2015 Professor Mike • MusicHost.com