Restoration of the 1928 Ross Dickinson Mural in the Alhecama Theatre

by Michael H. Imwalle

Patty West cleaning the mural surface. Note the un-cleaned portion to her left. Photo by Michael Imwalle.

Built in 1925, the Alhecama Theatre at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park was originally called the Little Theatre; it became the Pueblo Theatre in 1937. It consisted of a single-story multi-use auditorium with a raised stage. The building is among a cluster of eleven wooden buildings and one stucco building that date to the Community Arts Association’s Festival Arts School (later named the Santa Barbara School of the Arts) that thrived from 1920 to the mid-1930s. In 1928 painter Ross Dickinson painted a mural depicting a Mediterranean village scene on the wall opposite the stage.

Patty West examining the edges of the Celotex panels around the holes cut for the projection booth. Photo by Ashley Emma.

In 1939 significant changes were made to the building including the addition of a foyer and ticket booth, a fly above the stage, and a small apartment. Modifications to the original building included the addition of a projection booth above the foyer for showing films. In order to project films, five rectangular openings were cut through the Dickinson mural.

Installation of the Celotex patches to infill the holes. Photo by Michael Imwalle.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Outhwaite Foundation in 2016 and additional funding from a special appeal to members of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP), the mural has recently been restored. In January of 2017 Patty West, director and chief conservator for the South Coast Fine Arts Conservation Center, began a two-phase project to clean and restore the 1928 mural.

Tracing the design on to the Celotex panels. Photo by Michael Imwalle.

The first phase of the project began with the meticulous cleaning of the mural’s surface with a very mild detergent mixed to match the pH in oil paints used by Dickinson. After more than a week, and thousands of filthy cotton balls later, the cleaning was completed. The next phase of the project was to patch small cracks and tears in the underlying Celotex paneling on which the mural was painted. The final stage of the repairs was to insert Celotex panels to fill in the holes cut for the projection booth in 1939. This was accomplished by finding an identical match to the surface texture of the original Celotex, then building a frame within the wall to which the new panels would be attached.

Close-up of in-painted design on the new Celotex patch. Photo by Patty West.

After the new panels were installed, it was time for the final stage of the restoration, the in-painting of the new panels and all the other repaired surfaces of the original mural. The in-painting was done by lightly tracing the design onto the new panels then painting the final image with reversible conservation paints to match the surrounding mural colors. After nearly a month, the restoration was complete! Thank you Patty, the Outhwaite Foundation, and SBTHP members who contributed to the restoration of this fabulous remnant of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts!

Completely repaired and restored mural. Photo by Michael Imwalle.

Michael Imwalle is the Associate Executive Director for Cultural Resources at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

2 thoughts on “Restoration of the 1928 Ross Dickinson Mural in the Alhecama Theatre”

  1. Bravo Mike, Patty West, and all who contributed to this project to save the mural and an important piece of Santa Barbara’s Heritage. How do you plan to use this space/auditorium now?

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