Rural Missouri - December 2010 - (Page 32)
N E I G H B O R S
Turning back the clock
Tom Sater works to return historic structures to their original splendor
by Jim McCarty email@example.com crawls around in spaces that haven’t seen the light of day in decades and carefully sands off paint one layer at a time to expose the different decorating periods back to the structure’s beginhere’s no clear-cut path to get to the ning. He calls this “historic paint analysis and career Tom Sater chose for his life’s controlled removal.” work. High schools don’t prepare One of his projects, the Shrine of St. Joseph students for it. It’s not something in St. Louis, required him to remove 18 layers of you learn at a trade school. And no university paint. “You are turning back the pages of time,” includes it on its course descriptions. Tom says. “And you are looking at the color Tom, 69, is an architectonic polychromdistribution, the ornamentation. It’s easy to see. ist, one of only a handful of people who earn Every decorating period had its signature.” their keep designing and restoring the interiors No purist, Tom doesn’t always create a design of historic structures. Tom often struggles to that mimics the original décor. A case in point explain the archaic term. is the library he restored in the governor’s manOnce, a woman asked him what he did for a sion, one of two official Bicentennial restoration living. “She gave me this long count and then projects. He discovered the original designers said, ‘Oh, a foot doctor,’” Tom says. gilded every element of the 24-inch cornice, Need your church restored? Got a monuthen painted the ceiling in eggplant purple. mental public building that needs work? Gold “That was a massive amount of gold,” Tom dome lost its luster? Tom’s your man. says. “It must have looked gaudy as heck. What His resume includes dozens of historic were they thinking?” churches, the state Capitol and Supreme Court Instead of replicating the original look, he buildings, courthouses in Cole and Butler and the project architect backed up to the next counties, Columbia’s Missouri Theater, an generation color palette, done a few years later opera house in St. Charles and the governor’s in more tasteful creams, greens and gold leaf. mansion. He’s done hush-hush work for aeroThe Capitol also required some reinterpretaspace giant McDonnell Douglas (now part of tion. Tom says the original painters hired at the Boeing), and he’s restored tractor-trailer loads Capitol were traveling house painters who did of priceless artwork. not have the skills to decorate such a monuTom says his expertise lies somewhere mental structure. between art history and architecture. “What Tom says most of his work came because of a academia never seems to pay any attention to minimalist movement that caused many fabuis this vast area between those two that is the lous churches to be stripped of their original history of craftsmanship,” Tom says. “They splendor during the late 1960s and early 1970s. kind of turn their noses up at craftsmanship. Ceilings were lowered. Paneling covered handHow did the Egyptians do that 3,000 years painted murals. Side altars were removed. ago? Where are the formulas they used? Who After years spent restoring historic churches and other build“There were battles,” Tom says of this time. documents this? Well, I found out.” ings to their original splendor, Tom Sater has semi-retired and “Some churches almost threw their pastors out Tom spent decades studying ancient manuis spending his days working with historic tools as a volunteer on their ears.” scripts and musty tomes to unlock the secrets for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Van Buren. Tom considers these minimalist churches of the masters, who were often unwilling to “soulless.” later, and it looked like the day I did it.” share their skills with potential competitors. “A church ought not be an auditorium,” he Other unusual projects included applying gold He also went to night school to learn everything says. “A God-centeredness is not there. It might as leaf to a jet for a Saudi prince and gilding a parahe could about art. well be a Buick showroom. I almost get shot after bolic reflector for McDonnell Douglas. Recently, he He worked for two years as a union sign this train of thought. Jesus said wherever two or applied gold leaf to a hand-forged fishing gig that painter, mastering the art of hand lettering and more gather in his name . . . But I’m old school. I sold for $1,000 in a fundraiser for a sick friend. applying gold leaf. He also painted backdrops for agree with that 11th-century monk who said every Tom opened a restoration studio, first located St. Louis’ Muny Opera. Along the way, he had an church should manifest a little of the Holy City of in St. Louis and most recently in Jefferson City. He opportunity to study with master decorators from Jerusalem.” has since semi-retired to Van Buren, where he volthe German and Italian schools of design. He says he approaches his work as if God was unteers for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways After five years working for his on the restoration committee. “I look at a church when he’s not fishing on Current River. uncle, one of the nation’s top and I want to create in that worship space a sense “This is an area of intense passion of church interior decorators, Tom of timelessness,” he says. “When I am finished and mine,” Tom says of his work. “Even the went into business for himself. From you walk in, if you aren’t emotionally touched, I best architecture is nothing but a frame. 1970 to 1991, he ran a union paint haven’t done my job.” It takes someone like me to come along shop based in St. Louis. Though more focused these days on collecting and interpret the thing. All those hisOne of his most unusual tasks was Van Buren old tools and helping at the Scenic Riverways visitoric churches of a hundred years gilding the giant ball that sits atop the • tor’s center, Tom is still sought after for restoration ago, they were just smooth plaster Old Courthouse in St. Louis. So confiwork. walls. They were just forms, homogdent was Tom in his application of gold “I’ve had a good run,” he says. “It hasn’t made enous spaces. Because the architect of leaf to the ball that he gave the National me wealthy. But I could never imagine the rewards a hundred years ago, he knew he was going to find Park Service a 20-year guarantee. “Nobody in and satisfaction of the things I have done. I am his ecclesiastical decorator to help him express it.” their right mind gives a 20-year guarantee,” Tom very grateful to do something that so satiates the It takes extensive detective work before Tom can says. “But I knew what I was doing. By golly, we soul.” design a restoration project. He studies old photos, all went down there with binoculars 20 years
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - December 2010
Rural Missouri - December 2010
The Owl Innkeepers
Out of the Way Eats
Best of Rural Missouri
Hearth and Home
Too Good to Be True?
Rural Missouri - December 2010
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