Maeser chalkboards preserved

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    By Natalie Clark

    In a vacated school building, the life of three 100-year-old chalkboards with sayings written on them by Karl G. Maeser hung in the balance.

    In an effort to preserve history, the chalkboards were saved, removed and restored by Buddy Richards, BYU chair of educational leadership and foundations.

    ?It?s a miracle that they survived,? Richards said. ?Three of the four chalkboards survived for 105 years.?

    After extensive restoration efforts, the boards were officially deeded to BYU from Provo City Housing on Oct. 17. The ceremony was held in the HBLL L. Tom Perry Special Collections.

    The history of the chalkboards dates back to Nov. 9, 1900, when Maeser made a trip to the Maeser Elementary School in Provo. On four different chalkboards, Maeser signed his name and dated four of his sayings: ?The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,? ?This life is one great object lesson to practice on the principles of immortality and eternal life,? ?Man grows with his higher aims? and ?Let naught that is unholy ever enter here.?

    The sayings sum up some of the things Maeser thought were important for people to know, said Gordon Daines, university archivist.

    However, one of the chalkboards was never recovered. The chalkboard is mentioned in a 1920s dissertation, but no one knows what happened to it.

    Declining enrollment and financial challenges led the Provo School Board to sell Maeser School after its closing in 2002. Provo City Housing bought the building with plans to refurbish it for senior citizen housing.

    Richards asked Doug Carlson, the executive director of Provo City Housing, what the plans were for the chalkboards.

    ?He basically told me if I had a good purpose for them they were mine,? Richards said. ?That was exciting.?

    The chalkboards of the 1900s are not the same as chalkboards today. Maeser wrote on a thin layer of black slate-textured paint on plaster attached to the brick of the building. Removing the chalkboards and preserving them was something no one has ever done before, and because plaster crumbles, removing the boards from the brick was risky.

    ?This was one great adventure,? Richards said.

    To preserve the chalkboards, Richards said he did his homework.

    After contacting conservationists at the New York Museum of Art and professionals in Denver, both of which did not know how to restore the boards, Richards and BYU colleague Reed Miller started to brainstorm and come up with a plan to remove and preserve the boards.

    ?These kinds of things are really interesting,? said Miller, artistic director for the Education in Zion exhibit. ?We couldn?t find anyone across the nation who has tried to save chalkboards in this way before. It was a unique challenge.?

    Ten coats of a preservation agent called Soluvar were sprayed over the writings on the chalkboards to preserve the chalk without dissolving it.

    To reinforce the board before removing it from the brick, heated beeswax was painted over silicon paper covered in cheesecloth. They then ironed it onto the chalkboard.

    ?We tested everything we tried and knew this could work,? Richards said.

    After the faces of the chalkboards were reinforced, a brace was constructed to support the boards, both vertically and horizontally, during the transfer from the brick to a secure resting place.

    While removing the first board from the brick, the brace proved to be too weak and the board cracked. However, the other two boards were successfully removed from the brick without any cracks.

    ?It was heartbreaking,? Richards said. ?It will need some major restoration. [But,] to get two of them off in the shape they are in is so exciting,? Richards said.

    The plaster was sealed and attached to an aluminum mounting board.

    ?Overall, we are just thrilled it has turned out as well as it has,? Richards said. ?It is pretty cool.?

    After days of work preserving the boards, the process proved to be successful, and the writing has been restored. The cheesecloth and beeswax were removed from the front of the boards, but the 10 coats of sealant remain on to protect the chalk.

    The final destination of the chalkboards is not fully known, but at least one or more of the chalkboards will be displayed in the Education in Zion exhibit in the Joseph F. Smith Building, and Richards said he hopes to have one of the chalkboards displayed in the David O. McKay Building.

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