92-year resident of Georgia barrier island leaves home treated by FAIC

Sandy West’s family bought Ossabaw Island, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia, in 1924. For almost a century, she inhabited the “Main House,” one of the few buildings on the island, and worked to protect the island and share its beauty with others. In 2010, FAIC joined furniture conservator David Bayne in a program to bring emerging conservation students to the island to gain hands-on training in historic home housekeeping and preventive conservation. The culmination of four summer workshops on the island resulted in a 40-page guide to caring for West’s home, prepared in 2015 for the State of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, which will gain control of the house after West’s death.
As a result of West’s eventual financial instability, the 25,000-acre island was sold in 1978 to the State of Georgia for a discounted price in hopes of preserving the sacred place. As a result, Ossabaw became Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve. The deal with the state allowed for West to remain in the colonial revival mansion on the island until her death (at the time, a state-hired actuary predicted she’d live to be 78). Now at the age of 103, West recently relocated to Savannah to access more affordable full-time care.

2013 Team - Ossabaw Island Preventive Conservation Workshop
2013 Team – Ossabaw Island Preventive Conservation Workshop

The FAIC workshops (see the plan for the 2015 course) taught the basics of preventive conservation in the pink 1920’s Main House. Ossabaw’s remoteness and climate presented a unique medley of housekeeping problems for the groups to consider. These workshops explored the relationship between objects, their history of use, and their long-term preservation in a historic house setting.
During each day of the two-week program, participants learned about different materials and how to care for them. The activities ranged from pest management to furniture handling; textile cleaning to taxidermy examination; and maintenance of book and paper collections. Participants gained experience in assessing and prioritizing issues with limited time and resources. The site contextualized objects in poor condition with their environment and acted as a counterpoint to the experience of working in a museum lab.
The living room in the Main House on Ossabaw Island, GA.
The living room in the Main House on Ossabaw Island, GA.

FAIC’s Ossabaw Housekeeping Guide provides yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly care recommendations specific to the main rooms of the house based on the objects and materials in the room. Pests, light levels, temperature, and relative humidity were monitored, with recordings included in the guide. Suggestions for crisis housekeeping are also included, and may be incorporated in a full disaster plan in the future.
For several reasons, including difficulty in getting to the island, FAIC had to find a new location for the historic house training workshop. The 2016 workshop is currently taking place with eight participants and five instructors at Staatsburgh State Historic Site, a property owned by the New York State Bureau of Historic Preservation. Keep an eye out for blog posts by the participants coming soon.
As West’s time on Ossabaw Island ends and the state prepares to take over the Main House, they are equipped with a solid resource for implementing a standard of practice and recommendations to be considered for the future care of the historic home.
You can find a review of the program from a 2012 participant on the blog: http://www.conservators-converse.org/2012/10/review-of-faic-preventive-conservation-workshop-ossabaw-island-ga-january-7-20-2012/ and an article on a workshop presented as a talk at our annual meeting in San Francisco (from which the above photographs have been reposted): http://www.conservators-converse.org/2014/06/42nd-annual-meeting-collection-care-session-may-29-the-ossabaw-island-workshops-preventive-conservation-training-in-a-real-life-setting-by-david-bayne/

–Article by Sarah Saetren (FAIC Education Coordinator) with Bonnie Naugle

42nd Annual Meeting – Collection Care Session, May 29, “The Ossabaw Island Workshops – Preventive Conservation Training in a Real Life Setting” by David Bayne

Since 2010, there have been four Preventive Conservation workshops on Ossabaw Island, three of which have been generously funded by FAIC. These workshops have provided a unique training experience for both emerging conservation professionals and pre-program students.
Background and History of the Island
Ossabaw Island is a 26,000-acre remote barrier island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. It has five residents, and may only be accessed by private boat. It is mostly wilderness, but there are some very interesting historic buildings, including some slave cabins of tabby construction (a technique using oyster shells, sand, and water as the mortar ingredients), the Club House (c. 1885) – where lectures take place and participants are housed, and the Torrey-West House or the “Main House” – where the actual work is carried out.
Dr. and Mrs. Torrey bought the island in 1924 and had a house built there to be their family’s winter home to escape the harsh winters of their native Michigan. The house was completed in 1926, and the Torreys spent four months (January – April) there each year afterward. The current owner of the house is Mrs. Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West, who is the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Torrey and is currently 101 years old.
In 1961, Mrs. West and her husband started an artist colony, where writers, artists, and composers could come stay in the Wests’ home and be inspired by the island’s natural beauty and tranquility. In the 1970s, this evolved into the Genesis Project, where college students and less-established artists came to work on various projects. The Genesis participants were more self-sufficient and built settlements, cooking/dining/washing facilities, and a pottery kiln at an area of the island called “Middle Place.”
With her money running out, Mrs. West decided to sell the island to the state of Georgia in 1978, but she had several stipulations. She wanted the island to remain wild and continue to be a place of inspiration, creativity, and discovery, so the state was not allowed to build a causeway or start a ferry service to the island. They also had to continue encouraging arts and sciences projects/research and allow her to continue living in her house on the island until her death.
The Workshop
The original goals of the workshop were to use the Main House to:
1. Train housekeepers working in historic houses.
2. Professionalize preventive conservation.
3. Expose professional and emerging conservators to a nascent historic house and provide an opportunity for them to take part in its institutionalization.

The living room in the Main House on Ossabaw Island, GA.
The living room in the Main House on Ossabaw Island, GA.

The workshop provides a unique opportunity for participants to learn about preventive conservation and housekeeping practices for a historic house.  The things that make this program so unique are that the house…

  • is still a home in which the current owner is a 101-year-old woman who resides there full-time.
  • is on a remote island, and supplies must be brought out by chartered boat from the mainland.
  • suffers from MANY problems, such as:
    • The environment of the island (heat, humidity, salty ocean air, etc.)
      • Mold and mildew
      • Rotting wood
      • Rusting metal
    • Pests
      • Extensive damage to house, furniture, pillows/cushions, carpets/rugs, books, taxidermy, etc by termites, carpet beetles, silverfish, rodents, and other pests.
    • General neglect
      • As Mrs. West became older, she could not take care of the house by herself, and she could not afford to pay for the amount of repairs and housekeeping that the house required.
    • Arsenic
      • Exotic game heads (a lioness, black rhino, water buffalo, and a few kinds of antelope) have always been a major component of the living room décor, even appearing in the original architect drawings for the house.  These may have been shot by Dr. Torrey himself on a safari hunting trip to Africa.  All of them were treated with an arsenic-based pesticide.  Testing of the heads found that some had arsenic content that was off the charts (>160 ppb).

Though current housekeepers in historic houses were the original target audience, most of the people who have completed the workshop have been pre-program conservation students. A house with such a rich and fascinating history, but so many conservation issues, provides a lot of opportunities for pre-programmers to learn and gain hands-on experience. That is probably the workshop’s greatest achievement: exposing potential conservation students to collections care and preventive conservation.
I was lucky enough to have been one of the participants in the 2013 season. It was not glamorous. We worked hard and got dirty, crawling around on the floors and under cobwebbed furniture, vacuuming, dusting, moving heavy wooden furniture, and examining sticky traps that had caught all sorts of disgusting, multi-legged creatures. Through all of this, we got exposure to integrated pest management (IPM) and the care of furniture, paintings, textiles, books, and works of art on paper. It could be gross, but it was fun and exciting, too. As David said in his presentation, “Everything is an adventure on Ossabaw.”
Another major achievement of the workshop has been in helping emerging conservation professionals by providing third-year students or recent graduates the opportunity to be instructors. In 2013, that included two former WUDPAC students, Stephanie Hulman (paintings) and Emily Schuetz Stryker (textiles). These young professionals play an essential role because they have knowledge of the most recent techniques and advancements in the field and are better able to answer pre-program students’ questions about portfolios and conservation school.

2013 Team - Ossabaw Island Preventive Conservation Workshop
2013 Team – Ossabaw Island Preventive Conservation Workshop

Unfortunately, Emily Schuetz Stryker died suddenly and unexpectedly earlier this year. She was a great instructor, a wonderful person, and the most talented knitter that I have ever met. The Ossabaw workshop would not have been the same without her sense of humor and her wonderful laugh.
RIP Emily Schuetz Stryker (1987 – 2014)

Review of FAIC Preventive Conservation Workshop: Ossabaw Island, GA (January 7-20, 2012)

How does one care for a historic home that is currently being inhabited? How much care should be given to maintain such a site when funding and physical isolation prevent a clear future?

Last January I attended a two-week preventive conservation workshop along with five other participants on Ossabaw Island, a wilderness barrier island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, to try to tackle these questions.  As a pre-program conservation student, this workshop offered me a chance to consider conservation outside of traditional contexts, to engage in preventive conservation, and to experience a truly unforgettable adventure.

The island, whose earliest settlements date to 2000 BCE, was occupied by the Guale and Creek Indians, Spanish and English explorers, and plantation owners until its eventual purchase in 1924 by Dr. Henry Norton Torrey of Michigan.  Dr. Torrey’s daughter, Eleanor Torrey West, inherited the family’s home in addition to the entire island where she fostered a creative retreat, The Ossabaw Island Project, attended by writers, artists, and scientific researchers. Mrs. West (99) continues to live on Ossabaw today, but has since sold the island to the State of Georgia under the condition that it be kept as a nature preserve for academic pursuits. The island offered a meditative and isolated setting for our preventive conservation study; ancient shell middens, Spanish moss draped palmetto and live oak trees, tidal marshes, untouched beaches, wild pigs, and the ruins of tabby slave quarters comprised the island’s lush landscape.

The primary focus of the workshop was to discuss and employ preventive conservation strategies, including monitoring the temperature, relative humidity, light, and pests, while following and revising a housekeeping manual for the 1924 Spanish colonial revival style Torrey-West house. The workshop, taught by Peebles Island Resource Center conservators David Bayne, Kristin O’Connell, Abby Zoldowski, Michele Phillips, and private practice conservator Rose Cull, also included dedicated sessions on the care of the house’s textiles, books and works on paper, furniture, and outdoor iron structures. Several preventive sessions were continuations of the 2010 campaign, including the recording of pest activity, temperature, and climate within the house.  We identified insects found in traps, discussed data reconnaissance techniques, recorded light and ultraviolet readings, and selected two rooms on the ground floor to be lightly cleaned using housekeeping methods appropriate to historic houses.

In the object-based workshop sessions, the group learned about ideal conditions and care for different objects within the house’s collection. We selectively intervened based on the house’s two main limitations: the climate could not be kept constant, and most importantly, the house was inhabited. During the two weeks, we examined textiles damaged by insects and conducted a freezing cycle on two infested pillows, we learned about the basic mechanism of iron corrosion and treated a corroded window grate, we constructed protective enclosures for books, and took part in lectures and demonstrations on conservation tools and proper handling techniques.

This workshop provided me with an invaluable and thorough introduction to preventive conservation and historic housekeeping. The artifacts in the Torrey-West house presented challenging scenarios for proposing care or treatment; many objects were in daily use, such as the rugs, furniture, and stove, or had potential to be used, such as a book on a shelf.  The need for interpretation also arose when choosing which rooms to monitor or clean, and which damaged objects ought to be stabilized.

Not only did the instructors teach us practical skills and concepts, but they encouraged the students to explore ideas about value, and balancing treatment ideals with real-world limitations.  The landscape, the lessons learned, and the networking prospects (two of the participants, myself included, continued on to intern at the Peebles Island Resource Center) at Ossabaw Island made it well worth the trip! The FAIC generously awarded the participants a travel stipend to attend, and housing was provided by the Ossabaw Island Foundation in the restored “Clubhouse” building.

Applications for the next workshop (1/18- 2/1) are due November 12!  For more information, visit www.conservation-us.org/education.