LINCOLN SQUARE — Considering he's 136 years old, Kaiser Wilhelm I looks amazingly good.
A restored portrait of the first German emperor, which dates back to 1877, was unveiled Sunday at the DANK Haus German American Cultural Center, following a year-long process to repair the large-scale oil painting and its massive gilded frame.
DANK's staff discovered the portrait in 2003 while clearing out a room being used to store costumes. A series of woodcuts were similarly found languishing in the building's boiler room.
"We didn't really know what we had," said Nicholle Dombrowski, DANK executive director.
The painting, while in relatively good condition, had been subjected to numerous dings. The intricately carved frame had fared even worse, suffering water damage and showing the effects of an earlier restoration effort in which the gilding and ornamentation were obscured by a poorly applied coat of paint.
"Eighty-five to 90 percent" of the frame "had to be replaced or worked on in a major way," said Allaina May, owner of Granville Picture Framing, who oversaw the group of conservators and craftsmen called in to repair the portrait and frame.
"This team is amazing," she said. "They do such work with such dedication. I am humbled."
Scott Sherwood spent nearly a month filling in more than a 100 nicks and gouges and removing "several decades of urban dirt" from the painting.
"We don't try to make it look brand new," he said, but rather the goal is to minimize damage while preserving historical character.
The frame provided even greater challenges — and surprises.
Given the size of the solid wood frame — it's more than five-feet tall and weighs 250 pounds — DANK staff and the conservators assumed it had been made in Chicago, perhaps by the same artisans responsible for the elaborate gilding seen in many of the city's historic theaters.
"Then we found the imperial stamp on it," Dombrowski said.
The frame, it turned out, had been made by the kaiser's own frame builders and wood carvers, possibly at the same time as the painting, according to May.
Conservator John Walsh, a master gilder, took the lead on the frame's repairs, assisted by Alex Hizo, who carved replacements for the frame's decaying ornamentation.
Gilding the frame in 20-carat gold leaf took two months alone, according to May. The entire restoration of the frame lasted for nearly five months.
"I just wanted to create something breathtakingly beautiful for all of us," said Walsh.
The portrait now occupies its own room at DANK Haus, 4740 N. Western Ave., and is on permanent display, available for viewing by visitors.
"It's a big 'wow' when we do tours," said Dombrowski.
Given the portrait's origins with the imperial court — the painting is by official court painter Paul Bulow — it certainly has historical value, according to May.
But beyond that, it bears immeasurable cultural significance.
Said Paul Sherwood: "It's a link to our European history that every day slips a little further back in time."