Craigflower Manor National Historic Site (1853-6) in Victoria, BC is one of the oldest remaining farmhouse buildings in British Columbia and opened to the public in 1969. In January 2009, during an unusually cold winter, a fire started on the first floor. It was probably a “delayed ignition” (also called long term low temperature ignition) fire, caused by an electric heater warming and drying the area over time. There was no fire suppression in the house; fortunately, firefighters arrived in minutes, and extinguished the fire before it reached flashpoint.
Most of the damage was limited to the central staircase, adjacent to the ignition site. There was extensive charring of the structure and millwork, in some places total loss. There were also charred and blistered finishes and soot damage, but relatively little water damage. The restoration of Craigflower took four years, and along with cleaning included replacing wood elements (reusing the hardware as much as possible).
The worst damaged wood (judged as 50% or less of sound wood remaining) was removed. CO2 pellet blasting was used to remove char and soot from other areas, which worked well to quickly expose undamaged wood. Unfortunately, the plastic sheeting intended to contain all the material blasted off the surface was inadequate, and dust was deposited all throughout the house, requiring extensive cleanup in areas with no fire damage. While CO2 blasting companies will often claim that the process does not generate waste or leave behind residues, we should be aware that all the material blasted off during cleaning will go somewhere! Before using CO2 cleaning technique, test to determine how much dust will be generated, and make sure adequate extraction and abatement enclosures are in place before blasting. In the end, traditional mechanical removal of the char using chisels etc. may be more controllable and preferable.
Michaela Neiro spoke about a great treatment of bamboo furniture for exhibit at Quincy House, a historic home in Quincy Massachusetts built in 1790 (part of Historic New England). http://www.historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/quincy-house
Photographs from the 1880’s show bamboo chairs in the first floor hall, but they were subsequently lost. Fortunately, acceptable substitutes could be selected from the Historic New England collections.
Rattan and bamboo are two light but sturdy construction materials that became popular in America as a result of trade with China and the East, and remain commonly available today. Furniture made from rattan is called wicker.
The HNE chairs were constructed by heat bending the bamboo into curves, and securing joints with wood dowels and wood pins. No adhesives or metal fasteners were used. The seats were caned, and many small pieces of bamboo were joined to create intricate decorative patterns in the back, sides and base.
In addition to dirt and failing coatings, some of the small rattan and bamboo pieces were missing. Luckily there was enough information from the small “pin” holes left in the frame to figure out the original pattern. All the losses were filled with new rattan, which can be ordered in various thicknesses. The rattan was shaped by bending lengths around nail and board jigs while it was wet and pliable; when it dried it maintained the shape of the jig. The new rattan fills were toned to match the original bamboo and rattan using dilute acrylics before they were attached.
You can read more about the conservation project here:
When a drunk driver crashed into the parlor of Marrett House (1789) in Standish, Maine, the staff of Historic New England was able to see first-hand how well their disaster plan worked!
The damage was serious: clapboard smashed, wall studs snapped, wainscoting was knocked out, and furniture was displaced inside the room.
Local staff were on the scene quickly to secure the area. A team drove up within hours of the crash, to add temporary supports for the 2nd floor and to board up the hole in the house. The insurance company was called, and the policy was able to cover some recovery costs.
With such extensive damage, recovery was not straightforward. The floor carpet (dating to 1857) was undamaged, and due to its size, it was rolled and boxed to remain in the room during construction work. Furniture and objects had been removed from the room immediately, to be treated and stored. The house remained open for tours during the entire process.
The conservation and restoration of the structure was carried out with the goal of maintaining as much of the original materials as possible. The 1857 wallpaper and paint finishes were protected in situ. Where new support beams were needed, the modern additions were marked with copper tags to identify them as non-original. Plaster, lathe, and wainscoting were replaced; in the end, only spot retouching of the paint on the paneling was necessary.
Only three pieces of furniture were actually damaged (two chairs and a card table), and one vase fell during the crash. No pictures fell off the walls, and the rug was totally fine. Overall, they feel lucky that the damage was not worse.
Here are some tips they shared for disaster response:
-photograph the damage before starting recovery: this is good documentation practice and can help with insurance claims
-don’t throw anything away: a small bit of veneer from the damaged table was later discovered among the wood splinters and debris swept up during recovery (and saved in a box), and was able to be reattached
-make sure the emergency telephone tree makes sense: HNE is geographically far-flung, and in this case the first people called were NOT the closest to the scene
Alex Carlisle presented a fascinating and detailed treatment of the pulpit in Fort Herkimer Church, German Flatts, New York (http://fortherkimerchurch.org/7.html). The church has a long history; the current structure dates to 1767, with many additions and expansion in war and peacetime. The pulpit was added in the early 19th century, and seems to be completely unique; it is made from white pine, but nothing is known about the workshop.
During a recent, major renovation of the church, white paint coating the pulpit was partially sanded off and discovered to be covering polychrome decoration. At this point, Carlisle was asked to work on the project, to remove the remaining white overpaint and preserve the original polychrome layer. At least one coat of white paint was lead-based, and very intractable; the majority of this was mechanically removed. Fortunately an older resin coating layer was present, and the lead white paint tended to cleave off at the interface.
Once the white overpaint was removed, the remaining original surfaces were consolidated and coated with a barrier layer. Losses in the polychrome ornament were inpainted to re-create the original decorative effect. So far the base and main section of the pulpit have successfully been treated; the canopy awaits funding to complete the project (keep an eye out for part 3!)
Nolley and Gillis treated a 17th century Pennsylvania German shrank which is a rare example with surviving original painted finish including faux burl wood graining and colorful decorative ornaments.
Shrank is a German word for wardrobe; many such cabinets were made in America by immigrants, using locally available woods. As with other types of furniture, these would sometimes have been faux painted to imitate a fancier wood with more elaborate carving or decoration; grain painting was a common decorative technique. Due to their utilitarian nature, original finishes on early examples seldom survive.
Cross-section analysis showed that the Chipstone shrank did have original paint, but with large areas compromised by fire damage and wear from use. This led to the initial overpainting in the early 19th century, followed by several consecutive paint treatments over the years, including an opaque, gray-blue colored casein based paint. This gray-blue layer proved to be very intractable, particularly over areas that were burned or highly worn. Cleaning solutions with chelators were able to remove the majority; agar gel was used for local cleaning around sensitive areas. Older oil-based coating layers actually acted as a resist to prevent the cleaning from going too far.
Completed with varnishing, waxing, and selective inpainting, the treatment was able to successfully expose original decoration and give a sense of the shrank’s intended appearance.
Catherine Coueignoux presented an exciting treatment of the Augustus Rex (c.1750) writing cabinet in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum (W.63-1977 http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O74665/writing-cabinet-kimmel-michael/# )
The elaborate ormolu mounts had been previously re-gilded. Before treatment were coated with a thick layer of dirt and dust over a shoe polish-like wax treatment, which was possibly added to dull the appearance of the bright new gilding. All other metal components were corroded, and the wood and marquetry had all been stripped and refinished. Curators wished the treatment to result in a bright, nearly-new appearance as it may have looked when newly restored (the previous refinishing and regilding probably occurred while owned by the Rothschild family).
Spotty corrosion on metal components that could not be removed was treated locally where possible. EDTA gel and BCA gels were tested but unsatisfactory- cleaning not enough, or too well. Coueignoux was able to use rottenstone to spot clean dark areas, leaving a layer of light corrosion sympathetic to surrounding areas. In some places, the corrosion spots were left untreated.
The removable ormolu mounts were cleaned using dry ice pellets, a new method for the lab. Their system uses a block of CO2 dry ice which is shaved into pellets and sprayed onto the surface of the object using an air compressor with a custom nozzle. The CO2 pellets expand on contact, providing a gentle mechanical cleaning. By moving quickly along the surface, they were able to avoid excessive cooling that would result in condensation. Acetone and a hairdryer were on hand to remove any condensation that did form. Other labs using CO2 cleaning include the Getty and the Smithsonian.
In the case of the ormolu mounts, CO2 cleaning was fast, safe and effective and removing the unwanted wax and dirt- 150 mounts were cleaned in only seven hours! Obviously this method is not appropriate for many objects and materials, but may be a convenient choice for more conservators in the future.
Nancy Britton presented several interesting examples of innovative upholstery treatments using carbon fiber support for the underupholstery. She also shared interesting discoveries from examining construction methods and written markings on multiples and sets of furniture from the same workshop and from the same collection.
The treatments used carbon fiber as woven “fabric” sheets which can be cut, shaped, and embedded in epoxy to create very strong, rigid supports for the upholstery layers above. Nancy has used the carbon fiber/epoxy matrix by casting it onto an ethafoam base, casting smaller parts to assemble, and making a one-piece shell. She also makes up flat stock to have on hand which can be cut and shaped more quickly than casting pieces.
Carbon fiber is also available in many other forms from numerous suppliers, including a sandwich board similar to honeycomb aluminum panels, available from the company Protech: http://www.protechcomposites.com/categories/Sandwich-Panels/ (Please note, I am not aware if this specific product is suitable for conservation use.) More information on carbon fiber is available over on the wiki: http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Carbon_Fiber
Next, I was very interested to see and hear how Nancy examines pieces, and all the information that can be gained even from a bare, deupholstered frame. By looking at the tool marks, hole patterns, and remaining hardware, she has been able to see differences in working method that she feels indicate the work of different craftsmen. One set of furniture she examined had identical materials but differences in working style that suggest they were made in the same shop and time period, but upholstered by different people. Variations in the stitching also provide clues.
Finally, Nancy showed examples of markings (numbers) found on chair frames and upholstery layers of pieces from the Met’s Hoentschel show at Bard Graduate Center. By looking at the marks and comparing them to early photographs of installations at the Met, along with other exhibition information from the archives, she was able to learn more about the upholstery timeline and how the chairs looked in the past.
Nancy’s talk reminded me that careful documentation of an entire piece, down to the smallest and apparently insignificant details, can provide a wealth of knowledge. We may discover new information about the piece’s history, and learn more about past upholsterers, who remain largely unknown.
Anne Battram presented a shortened version of a talk given at the “first International Conference in Europe focused on upholstery history,” held in Vadstena, Sweden. Proceedings of the Sweden conference, “The Forgotten History- Upholstery Conservation” ed. Karin Lohm are available from Linköping University. Several people noted that this publication can be difficult to obtain- check with Anne or the University. Archetype may also have copies.
The talk gave an introduction to the history of slipcovers in America, and was jam-packed with specific examples and great visuals.
Anne explained that slipcovers have been used for seating furniture, footstools, and tables. They are often used to protect the surface below, which might be an expensive or fragile upholstery fabric, underupholstery, or finished wood. In a home, sturdy slipcovers might be removed to create a fancier appearance in honor of an esteemed guest. But in some instances, the slipcover itself is made of an expensive, extravagant material, and can be removed and stored when not in use. One example of a close-fitting, fancy slipcover was secured to the chair using cords attached to the cover, threaded through holes drilled in the frame.
Adding slipcovers to worn or outdated furniture has been used as a less expensive alternative to having them reupholstered. Slipcovers also allowed rooms to be re-decorated “en suite” with matching fabric for the upholstery, cushions, and window treatments.
Slipcovers are differentiated from dustcovers, which are used to protect furniture when it is not in use (e.g. in storage or when a house was closed). Dustcovers tend to be less form-fitting, usually extend all the way to the floor, and often are made from solid colored fabric.
Striped and checked fabrics were popular for slipcovers used to protect upholstery from everyday use. Sturdy chintz and toile patterns were also common. Colonial Williamsburg has an example of a leather slipcover.
Construction details vary: some examples of early slipcovers were made with the seams facing out and bound, (giving an appearance similar to welting) which would make the fitting process simpler and add definition to the final shape. Some slipcovers are very loose, barely fitted and might be attached with ties. Skirts and flounces added to a slipcover would give added protection to projecting curved or carved legs.
Check out the postprints, and the proceedings from the Sweden conference, for all the well-researched details on slipcovers.