Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today, we join NCPTT’s Alex Beard as she speaks with several staff from Historic New England located in Haverhill, Massachusetts. In this podcast, they talk about the recent acquisition of the 19th century Gilded Age Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts, and the daily treatments and prep work involved for the opening of the property to the public.
Alex Beard: Hi. My name is Alex Beard and I’m here at Historic New England in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Here with me today is Liz Peirce. She is the current Mellon Fellow at Historic New England. Hi, Liz. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing at Historic New England, some of the projects you’ve been working on?
Liz Peirce: Hi. Absolutely. I’ve had a couple of major projects that I’ve been working on. Right now, we’re really in the push to open a house in Milton, Massachusetts, so there’s been a lot of furniture coming into the lab.
A little bit about me, I’m trained as an objects conservator with a furniture specialty. I was a woodworker for a while, so I’m really interested in furniture conservation. A lot of what I’ve been working on has been furniture in the collection, either going into Milton or my major research project, which is a 1820s couch from our Otis property in Boston.
The major project for that has been identifying the original layers, finding out the history of the piece, and trying to bring it back closer to the appearance in the 1820s for an upcoming exhibition in 2018. What’s been really interesting is that the layer structure, when you first look at the piece it sort of looks like a brown couch with some nice carving that’s either a dark brown or a black, but when you look really closely in the cracks on the paint, you can see gilding coming through. (More information about this can be found on Historic New England’s blog.)
We started looking into that more closely, took cross-sections, tried to identify what areas actually had gilding and what areas didn’t have gilding, and have been working to devise a system to do a reversible gilding treatment. There’s also grain painting on the piece, so there are areas that have been severely damaged. I’ve been doing a lot of research into grain painting and then trying to devise a layer structure to most closely mimic the original grain painting that is now gone, particularly on the back of the couch.
It’s been a lot of testing. A lot of looking at different colors of gold, looking at different applications for graining, making combs, testing pre-made combs, and different combinations and glazes.
I’ve also been looking at the upholstery. We took off the current upholstery, which was a sort of purple color, and completely inappropriate for the time period. We found underneath the original little circles underneath the nails of the original fabric. That has helped inform curatorial decisions. It was original a red velvet that had been calendered with sort of a five petaled flower. We found a piece of that in one of the curatorial files, as well.
Being able to do fiber ID and make sure that that was the original upholstery has been really interesting to be able to identify that.
When we did the de-upholstery, we discovered that the original 1820s under-upholstery was still intact, which is really rare. That’s completely and totally changed what we were planning on doing for part of the treatment, as well.
We had been originally planning on doing an ethafoam based under-upholstery to make it sort of unappetizing to insects and to make it more stable long-term, but because the under upholstery is still present and it’s from that time period and that is really a rare find because of hygiene laws that were put in place. Normally, when you went and reupholstered in the late 19th century you would strip all the way back to the bare wood, so you would lose all of that information and all of that history, and because we still have that intact, we decided that we want to keep it.
We’re instead doing a non-intrusive, minimally interventive upholstery technique, which has linen-wrapped Nomex strips that the show cover is then stitched to, rather than doing a full reupholstery where you would have to use all the tacks and the nails for every bit. That also means that there’s less damage to the wood frame and it makes it easier and less damaging to change the appearance later on if anyone feels that that’s more appropriate.
Alex Beard: Thank you so much for that in-depth description about the treatment and the history of the piece. When and where will this be on display?
Liz Peirce: It’s an exhibition that’s going to be on Vose (Isaac). It’s going to be at the Massachusetts Historical Society in 2018. There are some really interesting tidbits about the history of the piece that I can’t quite share, but you should definitely look for the catalog coming out by Robert Mussey and Clark Pierce where they will go into more depth on the history of the piece and the making of it.
Alex Beard: Yeah, because it kind of sounds like a hidden gem in the collection.
Liz Peirce: It’s is. It is. It was a very forgotten piece that has now been allowed to shine a little bit more. It’s pretty special.
Alex Beard: When was the last time, I’m just curious, this piece was treated?
Liz Peirce: It was treated at some point in time in the probably the 1960s. The last record that we actually have on file is from the 1930s when they described having damaged the original upholstery. Someone had gone and washed it and that removed all of the pattern. They kept some of the original upholstery and then reupholstered it at some point, but with a similar fabric. We think there’s only three campaigns, tops, of upholstery.
Alex Beard: That’s so interesting. I’m sure our viewers would love to see it when it’s finished. Liz has done a great job, so far.
Liz Peirce: Thank you.
Alex Beard: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. Appreciate it.
Liz Peirce: All right. Thanks very much.
Alex Beard: Hi, this is Alex Beard, here. We are in Milton, Massachusetts, with Historic New England, and I’m speaking with Michaela Neiro, an objects conservator, and Melanie Weston, a preservation manager. We are at the Eustis property, Eustis Estate. Melanie, you’ve been mainly tackling this project. Would you care to talk about what it’s taken to open up this property and acquiring process as well?
Melanie Weston: Sure. I can speak a little about that.
We acquired this property in 2012 and we began planning for the Eustis Estate Museum conversion, I think, around that same time, but we actively started the project in 2014. I came on board last October and my job, so far, has been to be the eyes and ears on site for Historic New England, while this project has taken place.
This house was a privately owned residence for three generations when it was built in 1878 and we have since probably last February been actively working on site projects and infrastructure and different upgrades to make it usable as a house museum.
Alex Beard: And Michaela, you have been traveling on site here and trying to prep all of the rooms and get them looking nice for gallery space and period rooms. Could you just talk a little bit about that process and what you’ve been doing?
Michaela Neiro: Sure. Yeah. So, after Melanie had her crew of contractors working on roads and walls and electricity and big picture items like that, I’ve come in with other conservators and we’re working on the fine finish work interior.
The fireplaces, there’s 11 fireplaces, well, there’s more than 11 fireplaces, but we’re treating 11 fireplaces in the house. These fireplaces have elaborate glazed tiles and terra cotta tiles and also wood surrounds. Some of these tiles are loose or cracked or chipped and we’ve repaired them. We’ve conserved lost glaze areas on some of these tiles where they’ve been damaged, repaired the tiles, re-adhered the tiles, and then cleaned them. Reinstalled them in situ and exactly the location they came from and cleaned and, in some cases, waxed them where they’ve become more matte and lost some of their protective glaze.
Another thing we’ve been working on are some of the brass elements in the house, some decorative hardware, and fireplace tools. Also, fireplace surrounds and chandeliers that have accumulated dust and some minor corrosion over the years. So, we’ve been cleaning, and polishing, and coating in some areas these brass elements.
Really just in preparation so everything can look it’s best for opening day and to set the standard for this house as a museum, as opposed to a private residence. As a private residence, the products that were used to, say, clean the brass over the years aren’t necessarily what we as conservators would use, so we’ve been removing some polish residue and then cleaning and coating so that they don’t have to be polished again.
Alex Beard: So, you’re stabilizing this property for hundreds of years to come. Could you tell us a little bit about the house and how many acres of land it sits on? I’ve been to the house, it is covered in lots of beautiful woodworking. You guys are just trying to keep intact the character of the house because it has been lived in. Could you talk about some of the challenges of that? Not trying to get everything sparkling new, by any means.
Michaela Neiro: Yeah. Sure. I mean, it was a very well-cared for house, but certainly was lived in and used for three generations. There’s accretions, we call them, build up of floor wax in some areas. Like Alex said, we’re not trying to make everything look pristine, but just clean and presentable for this opening, plus there have been a variety of contractors here over the last four months or more than that and it created a lot of dust, so getting that surface dust off along with the long embedded accretions.
Also, there’s some light damage. There’s so much woodwork and there’s so many beautiful windows that the varnish and the finish of some of the wood is deteriorated over time. We’re using shellac and other wax products to re-saturate and protect these areas that have damaged finish.
Melanie Weston: This estate was built in the 1870s to 1880s, we’re not really sure how long it took to build, but by looking at the house it didn’t take a year. Right, as of now, we have 80 to 90 acres of property. The original estate was quite a bit more than that. Some was taken for the Blue Hills Reservation.
The house itself is an Aesthetic style house, which really the entire point of that movement in architecture was beauty for beauty’s sake and there’s a lot of characteristics about that in the house when you see it and it really makes it a very unique.
The landscape was designed by Bowditch, Ernest Bowditch. He was a famous landscape architect in this area and his daughter actually married the second Mr. Eustis. It’s an interesting place both inside and out.
What’s really unique about the interiors of this building is the fact that there was only one layer of modern latex paint over all the historic finishes in the house. As one painter who came into this house described them, they are pretty wacky. They have some really interesting textures and some different colors and the color palette is very interesting.
The painting we found, we actually found a painter’s mark in the attic this summer during construction, was done by Haberstroh and Sons, which was a decorative finishing company out of Boston. When we did our first look for evidence of the paint, we did a bunch of exposures and we actually found that in the parlor we could remove the latex paint and expose the original finishes with duct tape. So that is now the original finish, but it’s been conserved.
The rest of the house that is open to the public, we have actually restored the finishes and created new ones to look like the old and that was done by IFACS, International Fine Arts Conservation Studio out of Atlanta with the help of a local painting company called Master Work.
Alex Beard: This place is incredible. If you guys ever get a chance to see it, you can visit Milton, Massachusetts. It’s opening, when is the exact opening day?
Melanie Weston: We will be opening to the public on May 17th.
Alex Beard: May 17th and it’s open during the summer season?
Melanie Weston: Yes. We’ll be open year round.
Alex Beard: You can visit Historic New England’s website to see their other properties, as well, to visit any of those in the northeast area.
Michaela Neiro: HistoricNewEngland.org
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at https://www.ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye, everybody.