Islander works as a sleuth to uncover the secrets of historic buildings and artwork
Hidden below the surface of almost any painted wall in Galveston are clues about what a building originally looked like. It takes a paint detective like Jhonny Langer to dig down and dig deep to find out the secrets concealed by layers of paint and finishes to tell the story of the structure.
“I am basically a sleuth and I find things,” said Langer, an award-winning restoration expert who has been repairing and conserving buildings for more than 30 years.
His list of accomplishments and consultations is impressive. More than 40 Texas counties have commissioned him to help in the restoration of historical courthouses across the state. Locally, he was one of the consultants for the monumental renovation of NASA’ s Mission Control, as well as working on restoring Galveston’s First Presbyterian Church; the University of Texas Medical Branch Open Gates project, which was a Sealy family home completed in 1889 and now an event and conference center; and the 1892 Bishop’s Palace, just to name a few.
“I am looking for what decorative finishes and paint colors are sandwiched between layers and layers of paint,” said Langer, whose first name is pronounced “Yonny,” and is a family name. “They are in there and I will find them.
“I carefully scrape away and finally find the original finishes and colors,” he said. “When doing the restorations, some people want to put it back to the way it was originally. Sometimes, when they find out the original colors, however, they aren’t too excited.”
Langer also tests the materials of floors, woodwork and walls, so replacements can be ordered and installed with original-looking resources, if they’re available. So much of his work is research, which starts with looking at the architectural designs and plans, if the owner has them. He researches the types of materials and finishes used during the period of construction and learns about styles, colors and treatments popular at the time, he said.
He scrapes away tiny bits of paint and finishes, stores them in small containers and takes them back to his studio to be tested to determine their properties and chemical analysis. Sometimes, he’s stumped by what he finds, and he goes back and digs deeper, looking for more clues, he said. He looks for segments of stenciling so he can piece together the design and recreate it where it once adorned the walls.
“I go back, find a crack in the wall and dig out samples and colors,” he said. “For nerds like me, this is really exciting to see what I can find.”
Langer, who grew up in the Houston Heights and went to the San Francisco Art Institute, was fortunate to complete a one-year internship in art conservation in Venice, Italy, with Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, where he learned many of his skills, he said. He returned to the United States and worked as an apprentice for two years at Preservation of Art in Houston, learning the finer details of restorations.
For more than 20 years, he has worked from his Galveston studio, consulting on a variety of projects across the state. For his work, he has been given the National Trust Honor Award for the restoration of Sengelmann Hall in Schulenburg, and twice bestowed the Sally B. Wallace Historic Preservation Award for work he has done in Galveston. Preservation Texas also gave him the 2014 Master Craftsman Award.
Presently, he’s restoring a 5-foot-high plaster statue of Jesus Christ, which has adorned the First Lutheran Church in Galveston since the 1870s. The hand was broken, a series of glazes covered the face and robe, and the little embedded label identifying the sculptor was filled with three layers of paint. But Langer was able to decipher the name and contacted the company, Daprato Statuary Co. in New York, which sent him the original plans for the statue so he could match the paint tones used.
“Every building is a surprise,” he said. “I love when I have those ‘aha moments’ and I find something I was searching for. Every job I do is different. It has been my passion and my profession.”