David Boysel, Conservator, San Francisco, CA
Decorated entry hall ceiling from the 1864 Abram Piatt Mansion in West Liberty, Ohio, decorated by Oliver Frey in 1880
Plaster sconce from the lobby of 1895 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, 1931
David Boysel will take us on a whirlwind tour of decorative painted finishes, materials and techniques from Victorian to Art Deco, with even a little bit of social history to provide context for changing styles and technology. In 19th century America, “fresco” was a term used to describe any paint-decorated ceiling or wall surface. By the 1870s, art supply companies sold “fresco paints” in a wide range of colors. Stencils, usually for borders or striping, supplemented freehand drawing. A process for die-cutting stencils was patented in 1879, and patterns proliferated.
The 1937 memoir of Harriet Lane Levy (one of Gertrude Stein’s girlhood friends) recalled the painted decorations of her childhood home at 920 O’Farrell Street in San Francisco.
“We regarded as a miracle, the way we came to have the interior of our house painted. The Swedish painter, a frescoer, had come to California to find work. Failing to find any, he had consented to decorate our ceiling at a moderate price. The extensive ceilings of the parlor alone were to be covered, but when he suggested for the ceiling of the music room a lattice of bamboo intertwined with garlands of tea roses and autumn leaves, and burnished birds of copper and blue winging their flight across the area of the firmament not occupied by the gasolier, the improvisation was irresistible. Mother said “No”, but in the end she gave her consent. The result was entrancing. Even Mother did not regret the outlay.”
The Levys’ home, like much of San Francisco, was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire. Harriet Lane Levy’s memories of the interior of her family’s home and the anonymous Swedish painter are all that is left of a site that was replaced by the repair shop of an automobile dealer. David Boysel’s career has focused on authentically restoring the “frescoes” that have survived.
David Boysel’s professional career of painting decoration began with his mother driving him to his first client’s home because he was too young to have a driver’s license. His artistic talents were nurtured, beginning in the ninth grade, by two very different private instructors. The first teacher provided classical, academic training. She taught Mr. Boysel how to grind pigments for oil paints and how to prepare canvases from raw materials. Her studio contained plaster casts that the teenager was required to draw. His second private art teacher was an abstractionist and printmaker. She shared her canvases with her student, each working on the painting simultaneously to utilize each artist’s special expertise — much like the practice of a Renaissance painting studio. High school was also where David Boysel was introduced to carpentry.
David Boysel graduated from Clark State College in Springfield, Ohio with a business degree in commercial art. Far more influential for his career was a Christmas break job repainting the ceiling decoration of an 1876 house, using fragments discovered beneath the wallpaper. He enjoyed repainting the Victorian ceiling far more than his studies. His education continued with collecting period manuals and articles about painting, as well as period painting tools.
His first job after relocating to California was helping to install a kitchen for a 1932 home in Trestle Glen. When the foreman left on vacation, Mr. Boysel continued working on the home — and on his own — for another year. The finished home accurately recreated a 1932 interior, including the light bulbs and magazines on the coffee table. This project launched our speaker’s career in historic restoration.
David Boysel had begun to work at the Oakland Paramount Theatre in 1988, but his work increased all over the building after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He has repaired the damage, and continued the theatre’s ongoing research and restoration projects. He restored the original color scheme of the Castro Theatre, its interior and neon sign, as well as many of the interior light fixtures. He has restored three San Francisco lobbies (one with his partner, Mario Donoso) and the chapel frescoes of the old St. Joseph’s Hospital at Park Hill. His work on pipe organs includes decorating and gilding the Wurlitzer console at the California Theatre in San Jose and restoring the finial of the organ console in the Rodin Gallery at the Legion of Honor. Preservation awards mark some of the highlights of David Boysel’s restoration career for: the Oakland Paramount Theatre from the National Park Service (1993); the Hermann Richter murals in Schroeder’s Restaurant from the Art Deco Society (1998); the Castro Theatre from the California Heritage Council (2006); the Oakland Paramount Theatre from the Oakland Heritage Alliance Partners (2012); and the Art Deco Society’s preservation award in 2013.
Mr. Boysel has contributed numerous articles to Sohisticate Magazine: “Architectural Restoration as a Preservation Art” (Winter 1989–1990); “Shimmering Surfaces: Restoring the Face of Art Deco” (Autumn 1998); “Paint and Color in American Art Deco Interiors” (Spring 2000); and “Couture to Common: Deco Wallpapers of the Twenties and Thirties” (Spring 2001). Marquee Magazine published “The Oakland Paramount’s Restoration” (second quarter 2013). Restoration necessarily involves period lighting, one of our speaker’s collecting passions, as reflected in “Painted, Lacquered and Bronzed Lighting” in The Rushlight (June 2000).