Posted on Jul 29, 2005

When the staff at New York's historic-preservation office needed help restoring the home of one of America's most famous landscape painters, they didn't call a general contractor or an art historian. They called a physics professor.

That's because they wanted to use lasers rather than traditional tools, such as water and cleanser, for the project at Olana, the house in Hudson, N.Y., where the landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church once lived. And lasers are the specialty of Seyffie Maleki, an associate professor of physics at Union College. He uses them mainly for atomic physics and optics, but he has also taken a course on their use in art conservation.

Mr. Maleki and one of his students are working with conservators to clean the walls at the artist's Persian-style villa, which Church covered with intricate Middle Eastern-inspired stencils of bright pink and turquoise. Obscured by time and dirt, the stencils have lost their luster.

Traditional tools could ruin the artwork because of the types of paints Church may have used, says Joyce Zucker, painting conservator for the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites. In laser cleaning, beams excite and thereby evaporate water molecules on the wall. The lasers remove not only the moisture but also the layers of grime that sit on top.

Conservators are now testing the laser method and will decide whether to continue with the process, which, while popular in Europe, is rarely used in the United States. “In the home of an artist who was a great colorist, it is that much more important to get it right,” Ms. Zucker says.