Retiree restores 15th-century ceiling for S.F. museum &mdash and its fun

As Robert Rosenberg approached retirement, he knew he had to find something to do with his spare time.

The 85-year-old San Mateo resident had spent his career in the insurance business, and felt no particular calling, but he knew he didn’t want to sit at home all the time.

Knowing that he liked to work with his hands, his wife suggested he contact a local museum. He called the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

That began more than 20 years of volunteering at least one day a week, sometimes two, at both the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum.

In appreciation of his efforts, Rosenberg, who goes by “Bob,” was recently given the Bernard Osher Cultural Award, which comes with a $12,000 stipend.

While Rosenberg’s first thought was to put the money back into the museum, he was told that he had to spend it on himself. So the congregant of Peninsula Temple Beth El is taking his wife on a 16-day cruise to the Mediterranean next year.

Rosenberg first began as a phone operator at the Legion of Honor, because it was the only volunteer position that was open. “So I said fine,” he recalled. Little did they know they were talking to an experienced operator; Rosenberg had already volunteered as one at KQED when it was a music station.

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “To be good, you have to be nosy and know what’s going on. You don’t just answer the phone.”

Rosenberg did that for about a year, until there was an opening in the furniture-conservation department.

Soon after, he got a plum assignment: helping to restore a ceiling that now hangs at the Legion of Honor. Originally from Spain, the ornately gilded ceiling was constructed between 1482 and 1503 and is believed to be one of four towers from the Palacio de Altamira in Torrijos.

Rosenberg was part of a team that worked on restoring the ceiling over a five-year period. One of his tasks was to painstakingly reapply gold leaf.

“I also did a lot of cleaning; it was very dirty, having sat up on the ceiling of the de Young for a long, long time,” he said.

Now, whenever he’s there, Rosenberg always stops in Gallery 3 of the Legion of Honor to see the ceiling. “I still get goose bumps when I go in and look at it,” he said.

Rosenberg insisted that he is not an artist; he calls himself more of a “mechanic.”

“You don’t have to be artistic to be a good gilder,” he said. “An artist is someone who can chisel away and make a statue. I couldn’t do that but I can do the mechanical work of preparing a base for gilding and learning how to work with this thin gold leaf.”

In 1999, he received the McNeil Volunteer Recognition Award, which is given to annually to two volunteers from each of the participating organizations — Fine Arts Museums of S.F., KQED and S.F. Museum of Modern Art. The award came with a cash prize that he was required to give back to the museum, for a project of his choice.

Rosenberg felt the tag on the wall next to the Spanish ceiling gave an insufficient explanation, so he chose to put the money toward a brochure detailing the restoration project. He also bought some portable seats that could be moved easily for elderly visitors viewing the art. The museum, which underwent extensive expansion and renovation in the ’90s, is located in Lincoln Park.

More recently, Rosenberg has been working on projects in the new de Young, such as helping paint the sphinxes flanking its entrance, to ready the museum for its grand opening last month.

He has also taken on more mundane tasks, such as building bookshelves in the administrative offices and painting metal clips the same color as the statues they secure, so that the clips blend in.

Rosenberg enjoys it all. “I’m able to work with my hands and see an accomplishment,” he said. “I feel that I’m getting something done, and I’m working with nice people who are very good to me.”

In fact, Rosenberg doesn’t feel he deserves an award for his museum work. “I do it to get out and it’s fun to see people,” he said. “I’m doing this because it’s fun for me.

“This has been a terrific life, and even for my wife, we share some of the experiences.”

Elisabeth Cornu, the head objects conservator at the Fine Arts Museums, said of Rosenberg, “He just gives so thoroughly of himself.”

Listing the numerous projects that he has worked on, she added, “I can’t even tell you how many projects he’s done. Because he’s been around so long, he knows where everything thing is, knows all the techniques, and just really fits in here.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."