Restoration Man

It was a hopeless scene. On a midsummer morning in 1995, a rundown Sixth Ward neighborhood was filled with the floating gray particles that only a fire brings. At 1505 Kane, the parishioners of St. Joseph's Catholic Church stood on the sidewalk and wept at what they saw. Their church, a red building with elegantly corbeled brickwork whose cornerstone had been set in place almost a century before, lay in near ruin before them. Hours before the ash-filled air brought a crowd, a faulty wire had snapped, sparked and lit St. Joseph's on fire. The flames had been hot and quick, eating up the pipe organ in the choir loft, the newly refinished pine boards on the main floor, the ornately detailed plaster columns in the nave, and licking everything else with soot and char. By the time anyone knew what was happening, smoke was billowing out of the church's 93-year-old rose windows and was well on its way through the marble altars and the Stations of the Cross.

The fire burned through the building, eating the history of whatever it touched. When all was said and done, after the firefighters had soaked the ashes, after the air had cooled enough to assess the damage, what was left looked like utter destruction. As St. Joseph's congregants stood in shock over the rubble, wondering how this could have happened, and wondering at the same time what could now be done, a car pulled up and a man got out. With his kind face and somber black clothing, he might have been a priest. He wasn't. His name was Antonio Loro, and sitting at home he had watched the news of what happened on his television. He searched out Father Joseph Doyle, the clergyman in charge of St. Joseph's, to give him a message of hope. He had seen this sort of thing before, Loro said, and he knew all was not lost. What had been taken from St. Joseph's by the flames could be restored. Salvation was possible. And Loro knew this for a simple reason: He was the man who could do the saving.

Ask almost anyone in America -- anyone in a position to know, that is -- to suggest a private conservator who has a special gift for restoring churches, and the name likely to be at or near the top of that list is Antonio Loro. Though Father Doyle wasn't really processing what Loro was telling him that sad day two years ago -- that there was a way to salvage most of St. Joseph's artifacts, many of which had been tossed out of the church and into still-smoking rubble -- someone who understood the enormity of the work to be done would call on Loro later. Fretz Construction, the Houston church builder hired to repair St. Joseph's infrastructure, contracted him a few months after the fire to restore what they couldn't.

They were simply the latest in a line of people who have turned to Loro to heal what seemed to be doomed objects. By the time he was asked to help resurrect parts of St. Joseph's, he had already restored various elements of seven other Catholic churches. Though religious icons are not the only items Loro turns his conservator's craft toward, he's one of a relative handful of conservators in the country with sacred objects as a specialty. In an obscure profession that offers little recognition, Loro has made quite a name for himself in the business of restoring churches. As a result, Loro's name and reputation often resonate outside Houston with a solemn kind of reverence. When desperate priests call around to find a conservator to restore everything from their parish statuary to the gold leaf on their confessional screens, they're told by other priests to call Loro.

It's a sometimes ironic position for a man whose own paintings hang in international collections, who taught art at the university level and who has frequently been commissioned to paint extravagantly sized murals, such as the one he completed last year at the Assumption Catholic Church on Roselane. He is, perhaps surprisingly given his stern working expression and his careful gestures, a gentleman with an easy laugh. Italian by birth and Argentinean by merit of his family's flight from Europe following World War II, Loro learned the conservator's trade from his father, who had learned it from Antonio's grandfather. The youngest Loro, a fair-skinned, blond boy, grew up in the family business, learning secret formulas for cleansing solutions and the proper techniques for using the restorer's box of tiny tools: scalpels, agate stone, Japanese rice paper and cotton swabs. Though he recognized his son had artistic talent, Antonio's father, wary of the postwar economy, insisted that his son not depend on art to support himself but learn the conservator's trade as a way to make a living. The duality has both haunted and amused Loro his entire life -- his logical, scientific side fed by his conservation work, his more private, passionate side barely satisfied by the paintings he completes in moments stolen from his business. As a young man, after earning recognition in gallery shows and museums across Latin America and founding an art school in Puerto Rico, he moved to the U.S. to study at a university and gain the credentials required to practice the conservator's craft in America -- a doctorate in art science, which includes a significant amount of chemistry course work. Finally, 15 years ago, he moved to Houston, in part because he thought the population would speak Spanish. He worked in an art gallery for a year, learning English well enough to open his own art school and finally, his restoration and appraisal business.

The 63-year-old Loro's hair has grayed, and he wears glasses to aid him in sifting through the stacks of photographs documenting his conservation projects. Somewhat protective by nature, conservators -- both those who work in museums and those who work in private practice -- are the least likely of any art professionals to comment on their colleagues' talents. So the restorers' projects act as testimony to their skill, and Loro's list is as impressive in its breadth as it is weighty in its importance.

When the Rufino Tamayo mural America was tragically removed from the Bank One building downtown to be sold at auction, Loro was there to direct the project and protect the great muralist's work. When the Menil Collection needed to restore their delicate frescoes, Loro was called in as one of the team consultants.

His father taught him well. Loro's Montrose studio/workshop is neatly stacked with five years' worth of backlogged work. After all these years, well past the time when postwar financial concerns have faded away, he still struggles, he says wistfully, for time to paint.

As a boy growing up in Argentina, Loro wanted nothing more than to be an artist. Most of his time was spent learning the secrets of the family trade -- how to apply gold leaf to Victorian furniture with a tool his father made from a dog's tooth, or how to waft a cleaning solution over a soiled canvas with an airy brush made from a cockroach's wing -- and when he was done with that, he painted.

He used his ingenious talent to create art supplies that simply weren't available, constructing brushes using cow hair and softening his paint pigment with cooking oil. One of his schoolteachers, a German officer who had a cache of colored pencils, taught him to draw in that medium, and Loro practiced everything from landscapes to portraits. From his very beginnings as an artist he had an interest in the elusive grace of the human figure, and his strong suit would always be anatomy -- a crucial gift in painting murals on the curved surfaces of church ceilings, and for recreating what has been burned or rotted away by natural disaster and neglect.

Loro quit working for his father shortly after he hit his teens. His patience for the tedious, precise work of restoration and his growing interest in becoming a painter came together when he found work at another restoration shop. But instead of restoring genuine objects, Loro's new job was to create objects -- especially Victorian furniture -- that appeared authentic, and which his employer then sold at "estate" auctions. After discovering that his new protege could not only put together a china cabinet but paint as well, the antique manufacturer asked Loro who his favorite artist was. When Loro answered that it was Picasso, his employer asked him to produce several paintings -- for his personal collection, he insisted -- that used Picasso's style but didn't directly copy his existing works. The experience proved valuable later, when Loro worked as an appraiser of art and antiques. It also proved a benchmark in his commitment to creating his own original paintings and drawings -- a result of walking into an estate sale and discovering, with no small amount of horror, that his faux Picassos were being sold as real Picassos.

The production of fakes is no less common now, says Loro. For evidence, all one needs to do is drive down Westheimer's antique row. "All those signs that say 'New Shipment'? They mean nothing," Loro claims. "If all the furniture being sold as Victorian furniture was real, every person in Europe during that era would have been a furniture maker." There are plenty of anecdotes, carefully and anonymously recorded in Loro's extensive notebook, of River Oaks dowagers who were duped into buying fake Rembrandts and ersatz Chippendale sofas. There are, too, the much rarer finds. After calling him to Conroe to look over a church damaged by fire, a priest asked Loro if he could identify the artist of a painting that had been donated to the church shortly after World War II. The painting, in which Christ carries the cross, his eyes downcast, turned out to be a small section of Benvenuto Tisi's Il Garofalo that had been slashed out of the much larger original.

Such discoveries are rare, Loro admits. Often he's hired to turn his skill to considerably less glamorous projects, but even those can be a point of pride for the gentleman conservator with an easy laugh. In one of the many photo albums that document the multiple steps of his projects, there are pictures of a World War II-era street portrait, probably created from a photograph that someone held in her pocketbook. Painted on plywood, the portrait of a young, rosy-cheeked man in a full dress army uniform was, at the time its owner presented it to Loro, deteriorating rapidly. In order to save it, the painting would have to be attached to another backing.

Layering the painting's surface with Japanese paper to secure it, Loro and his wife and partner Gretchen carefully chipped away the plywood backing with tools no bigger than X-acto knives. After the inferior backing was stripped away, Loro attached a new canvas to the back of the portrait, and sealed it with beeswax. "It is the most difficult project in restoration," he says. "You have to be very qualified, and it's very hard to do without damaging the painting." For Loro, the sentimental value attached to a painting is sometimes more important than its artistic merit.

It is only in private practice, says Loro, that a conservator has the luxury of working on only the projects he wants to work on. Wynne Phelan, head of the conservation department at the Museum of Fine Arts, doesn't disagree, but says that institutions provide the opportunity for collaboration -- a recent analysis of one of Ima Hogg's wooden figures from Bayou Bend, for instance, revealed that the object sold to Miss Hogg as a likeness of Pocahontas with a garland of tobacco leaves was actually a garish circus lady dressed in a Grecian mini-toga and bright green tights. What conservators share, it seems, is a delight in uncovering mysteries and the pleasurable intimacy that only a restorer knows with a piece of art. Bending over a canvas for hours, filling in damaged portions and varnishing the final product creates a bond that, until then, only the artist shared with the work.

While much of what a conservator in a well-run museum does is preventive maintenance, the conservator in private practice is more often called in to repair egregious damage. On a table in his carport, Loro pulls back a heavy tarpaulin to reveal an assortment of terra-cotta body parts. At one point in their not so distant history, the parts were four elegant wholes -- early 18th-century French garden statues of female figures wrapped in Grecian togas. The jumble seems an unwieldy source of sculpture. A partial arm, its hand intact, reaches out. There is a delicate torso, small enough to tuck under one's arm alongside the top of a head, its firm coiffure left intact. In his studio, just a few feet away, two of the statues have been reconstructed, the fault lines from their meeting with a vandal's sledgehammer still painfully obvious.

The restoration process is slow and cautious in order to prevent damaging the sculptures further. Once the figures are pieced back together, Loro will fill in the cracks and refinish, as authentically as possible, the terra-cotta figures. Before that happens, however, there are artistic issues to discuss with the statues' owner. Though the crude blows that broke them apart created chaos, the secondary damage, a missing nose, a missing arm, creates an unexpected grace. Stroking the air in front of the missing nose, Loro says quietly, "See, I think this is beautiful. I would leave this alone."

In his favorite movie, Loro confides over a cup of hot chocolate, there is a scene that captures an especially romantic image of an artist. The film is All the Mornings of the World, which tells the story of 17th-century French violist Sainte Columbe and his famous but ill-mannered student, Marin Marais. Fixing a steely-eyed glare on the young, arrogant Marais, Columbe tells him, "You play music, but you are not a musician" -- the distinction being, of course, that one cannot survive on talent alone, that great work requires even greater devotion.

It's a principle that Loro remembers when his conservator's duties are applied in a religious context. When the artwork is connected to a church, the conservation stakes are raised much higher. Heritage, spirituality and a certain degree of defensiveness often come into play for an object's owner. It is, too, often a highly emotional process when such figures suffer damage. Wooden Christs come unglued from their crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary become sooty from burning votives and, occasionally, an earnest but misguided parishioner decides that the Stations of the Cross would be much more appealing with bright blue skies and green grass. As Gretchen Loro notes, other people's misery is often what gives her husband the opportunity to practice his craft. The role of the conservator is part gentle reassurance and part quiet conviction, a mix that Loro performs well.

The 14 Stations of the Cross at St. Joseph's, which depict incidents from Christ's Passion, had been painted with bright, pop colors some years before the fire. Underneath those colors were seven layers of white enamel paint that had over the years dulled much of the works' details. A gift from the Daughters of Erin in 1901, each station had a wooden frame with a plaster image. Perhaps it was a strange combination of bad taste and good luck, or perhaps, this being a church, it was an act of providence, but during the fire it was the layers of cheap white enamel that helped preserve the images in the intense heat. What had burned away was up to Loro to recreate once he had painstakingly cleaned away the burned edges. As they hang now, 13 of the stations glow with a soft, barely perceptible color. The church left one station burnt, as a reminder of how delicate life is.

The statuary is traditionally the last bit of work Loro finishes on a project. Occasionally, fire offers the opportunity for discovery, just as it offers the opportunity for the rebirth of a space. One of the last statues the Loros examined for St. Joseph's -- after refinishing the altars and the altar figures -- was a small statue of Jesus, colored a dirty gray by the smoke. As he removed the finish, Loro discovered that, underneath, the figure was two shades of terra cotta -- a rare find. Many of the statues found in American Catholic churches were ordered out of a catalog, and mass-produced in Europe from an original that had been cast countless times, meaning that every subsequent statue has less and less detail. Even the wealthiest parishes are a long way from Catholicism's golden age, when fine art and religion were intertwined, and when blocks of marble were deposited in Michelangelo's studio courtesy of the pope.

This small statue, however, was obviously the work of an artist, and Loro was pleased to find it at the end of the St. Joseph's project. It was the kind of discovery that characterizes the pleasure of restoration. It surfaced for Loro like an unexpected pearl. However, St. Joseph's new priest, Father Ferdinand Derrera, was less delighted with the figure's newly restored bright color -- the statue is seldom on display.

Loro accepts his customers' limits with a sense of resignation and humor. All he can do is save what needs saving. The result is an object restored to its original essence, reinforced at its very core. What happens then is out of his hands. "You can make it right," he says, "but you can't teach them to like it.


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