LOCKPORT - A work of local art, finished by a Niagara Falls teenager in the year America celebrated its centennial, is on display again in the History Center of Niagara.
The Niagara Street museum, also known as the Niagara County Historical Society, has had Gayton Swan's diorama of the first suspension bridge over the falls in its collection since 1974, but its deteriorating condition led the center to remove it from display six years ago.
With a grant of $7,200 in hand from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, the History Center was able to hire Great Lakes Art Conservation of Grand Island to restore the 3-D work to its original condition.
The diorama, which is 38½ inches high and 52 inches wide, includes a highly detailed model of the wooden suspension bridge with three railroad cars crossing it, in front of a painted background of the falls. Besides the bridge, there is a model of an early Maid of the Mist boat beneath the bridge. The diorama measures 6½ inches from front to back.
The real-life suspension bridge was completed in 1855 after four years of construction. It was designed by John A. Roebling, the German-born engineer whose most famous project was the Brooklyn Bridge. The 825-foot span had two levels, for railroad and vehicular use.
It stood about 2½ miles below the falls and was closed in 1896 because the increasing weights of trains made the span unusable, although it was still in good condition. The Whirlpool Rapids Bridge was built to replace it.
Tracy L. Dulniak, owner of the studio, worked on conserving Swan's 1876 painting, and Dena J. Cirpili handled the objects. Both women have master's degrees in art conservation from Buffalo State College, which Dulniak said is one of only three such programs in the country.
Melissa L. Dunlap, executive director of the History Center, said the diorama was a gift from a collector. "At some point before I was hired [in 1990], somebody had cut an opening in the top to put a light in there, which wasn't a good idea, to have all that heat in there," she said.
Barbara Moore, a curator who worked at the History Center in the early 1990s thanks to a grant, recommended that the light be removed. It was, and a piece of plexiglass was put in the hole.
"I loaned it out a couple of times, and I don't know what happened to the Plexiglas," Dunlap said.
A small paper sign someone made to identify the diorama fell inside, as did plenty of dust and dirt over the years.
"Some of the trusses to the bridge loosened," Dunlap said. Eventually, with the diorama falling into disrepair, it was taken off display.
The restorers took the diorama apart and went to work. Dulniak said they spent 80 to 90 hours on the project over a six-month period.
Their three-page report details the cleaners, varnishes and waxes they used to preserve the piece. Tiny areas of missing paint were filled in with new paint, and broken pieces were repaired.
"We respect the aging process," Dulniak said. "The goal is not to make things look new. It's to stabilize and to remove any varnish coatings and dirt."
She said applying a layer of varnish to a painting was a standard practice at the time. "The rule was to wait at least a year," she said.
"If there are cracks and things that have occurred, those are not tampered with. If paint is missing as a result of damage, we replace that."
She will be on hand at a public event at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 to discuss how the work was done.
Douglas V. Farley, director of development at the History Center, said the diorama went on display about two weeks ago in the meeting room on the museum's first floor.
But what of Gayton H. Swan, the teen prodigy who created the diorama?
According to an online biography, he doesn't seem to have been involved in art again.
Swan was born in Niagara Falls in 1859, the son of an American Express agent and messenger.
He started selling newspapers at age 10, and when he was 15, he went to work at a hardware store. It appears that the diorama was made in the time he had left over from that job, which he held for three years.
Swan worked at other hardware stores until 1880, when the 21-year-old was appointed superintendent of the Niagara Falls water works. He kept that job until 1884, when he returned to the private sector as an employee of Niagara Falls lumber dealer George Haeberle, whose daughter he had married in 1881.
After two years in the lumber business, Swan opened his own plumbing and tinning business, which he continued for many years. He also served a two-year term as Niagara Falls village trustee before the city's incorporation in 1892.
No biographical information about Swan is available after 1897. His name last appears in the U.S. census for Niagara Falls in 1920.