This lecture was recorded during a symposium held May 13, 2006 at the Victoria Mansion in Portland Maine.
Welcome and History of Preservation at Victoria Mansion
Robert Wolterstorff, Director, Victoria Mansion
Today’s symposium is intended to accomplish two things: to offer an overview of what’s been going on in the very active field of research in Brownstone preservation in the last several years, and to disseminate the results of our example to develop new techniques to conserve the King Brownstone as part of our 2004 tower restoration. For their support of today’s meeting, I want to thank the National Park Service and its daughter organization the NCPTT, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training for their very generous grant which made this symposium possible. I also want to thank Consigli Construction Co. for its generous gift which underwrote last night’s reception at the mansion. This symposium is organized in conjunction with APT Northeast Chapter who helped immeasurably to publicize it. Thank you. Also as cosponsors we are helped by AIA, Greater Portland of Landmark, the Main Historic Preservation Commission, and Main Preservation. Finally, I want to especially thank Ivan Myjer who volunteered so much time and advice as we were organizing this event. Thank you, Ivan.
Now I’ve been assigned only a few minutes to give context to today’s presentation and I want to talk about two things. First, why this site, not this site of course, but Victoria Mansion, is so important and why we lavish so much attention on it. Second of all, I want to talk about the history of our attempts to deal with what we’ve always called the brownstone problem.
Victoria Mansion, you’re seeing it on the screen here, also know as the Morse-Libby House, is a rare intact survivor of mid-nineteen century America. It was built and furnished be 1858 and 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. It’s comparatively early for an American Victorian house. The building itself is an architectural gem. An iconic example of the Italian builder style designed by architects Henry Austin in New Haven.
Inside are superb interiors designed by Gustave Herter, founder of the famous Herter Brothers Firm in New York City. Herter Brothers were the most important interior designers for a quarter century from 1858 to about 1882. Victorian Mansion is Gustave Herter’s first commission [inaudible 00:02:13] it’s the only Herter Firm commission that survives largely intact today.
Contributing to the interiors are the backers of paintings by Giuseppe Guidicini which cover walls and ceilings throughout the house. Truly over a thousand square years of painted decoration of the highest quality made in America in the nineteenth century.
More than 90% of the original furnishings of the house are still there including whole suites of furniture designed by Gustave Herter and manufactured in his New York workshop. This is Herter’s great cabinet in the reception room.
We also have original carpet from textile.
There is artwork, fabulous gas lighting fixtures still on their original setting with the original globes.
We have many of the small objects for daily use like, porcelain and sliver. Remarkable too, is the unity and consistency of these elements. The interiors were created and furnished all at one moment and with one mind in control so that all the cracks fit together into one harmonious hole. Each of the elements in the equation here, building, coordinated interiors, painted decorations and original collections lends importance in context to the other parts. The fact that all the elements survived together and were the best available in America at the time is what makes this site so important and such a rare document of American life aspirations at mid-century.
Now the rarity and complexity of the site has everything to do with how we treat the building. I want to make three points about that. First of all, we consider the site holistically, where the parts are inseparable. The exterior of the building can’t be considered apart from the interior, just can’t be. Obviously when we deal with the building we live by the Secretary of the Interior’s standards. We also live by the recommendations of the New Orleans Charter for Joint Preservation of Historic Structures and Artifacts, which recognizes the complexity of dealing with historic buildings and original objects together.
Second point, the importance and fragility of the interiors drove much of what we did on the tower. Safety was the most important issues of course, we had flaking stone which threatened the public. We were also growing anxious about the interior. We already had leads and we didn’t know how long the deteriorating stone would be in effective weather envelope. Further, we commanded that every stage during the construction, that the means and methods had to be worked out to safe guard the interiors at every time.
Third point, we consider the building itself to be a museum object. We treat it with the same care that we give to other objects in the collection which, means that we give a conservation level attention. That’s why we took such efforts to preserve original material; even developing new conservation treatments to save decorum.
A brief history of our attempts to address what is called the Brownstone problem. The house was only lived in by two families, the Morses and Libbys. The Libbys moved out in the 20s and the house was unoccupied for almost a decade, already an issue right there. It became a museum in 1941 operated by the Victoria Society of Maine Women of Achievement. They were enthusiastic and dedicated but they were desperately underfunded and for the next 30 years from the 40s till the early 70s the building spiraled downward, reaching a low point by the early 70s. The turning point didn’t come until federal funds for its third preservation became available which allowed the museum to bring in Morgan Phillips and thus the SPNEA. Andy Ladygo, who’s one of our presenters today, worked alongside Morgan Phillips’ early campaign.
In 1973, Phillips conducted a survey of the site and he commissioned photographs which showed how far down it had come. They are also wonderful for me to see because it reminds me how far we’ve come along.
Here we see the front parlor porch constructed of brownstone badly, badly decayed. It was an active safety hazard in danger of collapse, in 1973 again.
This is the back of the ell, the porches on the back of the building were originally built in wood, not in stone, but wood; which was sand painted to look like stone. You see how badly decayed the porch looks because the back of paint mason had some chronic roof leaks. We’ve come a long way since then. Phillips’ survey established just a few critical priorities. Water management was a key issues. The roof was leaking and he found the gutters and down spouts in complete failure. The brownstone was deteriorating. Exterior woodwork was badly decayed. Mastic was flaking off the ell, you see it here in this photograph. There were some general deterioration of the decorative painting inside the building. It’s a short triage list of urgent interventions need to save a patient from critical condition.
Phillips began an intensive series of restorations which are documented in his Report on Restoration Work 1973 to 1977 published by the National Park Service. It’s a famous little book that was taught in preservation programs for years and it may still be.
Here we see an example of the cornice during restoration. This is from his first campaign. He also worked at restoring porches right away in the first two years. Phillips’ restoration so meticulous attention to recording, see each individual piece of wood given a number and a great emphasis on preserving original fabric whenever that was possible. Rotted wood would stabilize with epoxy. New pieces would be attached only when necessary. Nevertheless, in this case much of the crown molding had to be cut from new redwood. Such work was a model for the period.
Now while projects like that emphasize the preservation of original fabric, another project involved a complete restoration; just a complete reconstruction. The side ell porch had been removed at some unrecorded time. It’s just not there in this photography; the ’73 survey photography.
There it is under construction. Usually physical evidence and a single photography, Phillips reconstructed the porch. The fact that such a reconstruction was among their earliest projects completed on the build I find very interesting; while there were so many crisis going on. I think it shows both Phillips and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, which is awarding the federal grant, put a high value not just on saving original fabric but also on restoring the architectural coherence and legibility of the building. That’s going to be a recurring theme today- the balance between preserving original material and recapturing the original form of the building. We put huge emphasis on saving original material here but, for the site to be an accurate avocation of past life which is what the historic house museum is all about. It has to have the overall form. Both are aspects of authenticity. The authenticity of each part versus the authenticity of the whole. Essentially, the balance between preservation and restoration that I’m talking about. Sometimes you can’t have both.
While Phillips was engaged in the large woodwork he was investigating what to do about the brownstone. The front porches were the critical issues. Here you see the front parlor porch in 1977 with the roof shored up by mastic timbers. Phillips’ preference was to replicate the porch in stone. He largely ruled out the possibility of using Portland Brownstone because it’s obviously failing and because the quarry in Portland Connecticut was closed. He searched the world for suitable replacement stone that would look the same as Portland Brownstone but would be more durable. He didn’t find one.
In the end he elected to use a replacement material. The use of sand painted would for the back porches provided the justification to replicate the front porches in wood. Overall I think this treatment was highly successful. You can hardly tell the porches aren’t stone from the street and wood was far cheaper than stone which made it an affordable solution for the museum at that time. It’s interesting that Phillips didn’t seriously consider sources of salvage stone. I think this indicates an intentional hangup of brownstone which Phillips felt was inherently flawed.
His idea was to find something similar but better and even if he didn’t think this way it would have been suicide for him to suggest to the people running the museum that he was going to rebuild it using the same imperfect material. People here have always wished the original builders did have the foresight to build from good Maine granite instead of that brownstone from away. An important part of our dealing with the brownstone problem is to get over this hang up. We had to learn to understand and love brownstone. When I came here people would say that the building was built wrong because all the ashlars faced bedded.
I should say briefly by face bedding I mean when stone is installed on the building with the bedding planes of the sedimentary stone lay vertical and parallel to the building planes, that’s the upper illustration. You’ll note even from this illustration, taken from the HSR, suggest that naturally bedded as below is preferable. We are trying to get past that thinking. In fact, brownstone is a defining feature of the building. This is the only private house we know of that Austin had the opportunity to build with stone. The expensive exterior establishes the luxurious character of the house already from the outside.
One the west elevation, which is comparatively intact, you see how thoughtfully Austin used the stone. The aesthetic of the building is one of expansive shear smooth ashlar, played against boldly carved enrichment.
Braided stone is used like a figured veneer. I don’t know if you can see from way back there the wonderful swirl texture of the stone. It’s important to understand the swirled graining of brownstone is only developed when it’s used in the face bedding orientation. The tight joints contribute to this aesthetic as well. The context between the smooth ashlar panels where the rich graining and the deep foilot carving is of interest here and if very similar to what’s found inside the location.
This is the newel post to the main stairs, grewal wood veneers with deep carving. The point I want to make is the building is constructed by the piece of fine furniture and it was done so thoughtfully and intentionally. The building is all about brownstone. The material in inexplicably wound up with it’s meaning. The next assault on the brownstone problems came with the 1989 historic structure appointment and their associates.
The study included the stone by stone survey of entire building by building conservationist associates. 50% of all stone from the building showed deterioration and 30% they felt needed replacement. That was in 1988 the survey was done. Since the quarries were stone closed and they developed a plan to harvest material from the building itself using the thick stones covering the basement which they calculated could be cut into enough ashlars to reface the entire building.
The BTA conducted a pilot project and this was ’88 as well, to test that concept. One stone was removed from the base. You can see that going on here being loaded on to the truck. You see how thick the basement stones are. That was re-cut into 14 ashlars which were used to reface the Southeast corner of the building. Here is the pilot project area. They also replace one jam of the window and two of the console brackets, the one in the photograph that is one of the replaced; the cast stone. The base of the block itself has to be replaced with a block of cast stone which is created on site. The newly cut ashlars were beautifully and meticulous done and the work is weathering well. You can see it today if the clouds part. The cast stone doesn’t stand up to a close inspection. The basement block is faded badly in recent years. The window frame elements have kept their color but the casting is funky and color and texture are muddy and unappealing. In this case the replacement with another material is not successful.
Now the HSR sketched our plans to replace all the ashlar on the building in faze campaign so long with electrical wiring, fire protection, and critical interior conservation. Then they plan over the next five years we would restore all the rooms in the house and that would be done for the estimated price tag of 4 million dollars which is placating. The most striking thing of perhaps of all is that is where things stop. Nothing happens, it didn’t go forward. I think the price tag is over whelming and unrealistic for this little museum but I can’t help thinking that the solution of harvesting the building itself to save it by Saturn devouring his children doomed the proposal.
So that was 1988. Then in 1996 things turned. We commissioned a half assessment and this was the turning point. The building portion was conducted by engineer Michael Henry who raised concerns about the condition of the tower and especially the dowager. Could it withstand hurricanes and earthquakes both of which we do have here in coastal Maine. The reopening of the brownstone quarry in the early 90’s also provided the pretext current on their studies, new stone was available now.
That’s the Getty’s report cover. We applied for and received the Getty planning grant to undertake a broad study of the brownstone problem. The Getty study, which took place in 2000, included structural analysis, climatic studies, and laboratory analysis of the stone. George Wheeler designed the testing program.
A new survey of the tower, this was 12 years after the 1988 survey, showed substantially worsening conditions. You see it here shortly before we began the restoration. The Getty study urged that we needed to address it immediately and that lead to the Save America’s Treasures Grant and the 2004 restoration project.
Here’s an image of the top part of the tower after the restoration. You are going to hear must more about that project throughout the day. In a nutshell we removed most of the stone from the top down to the level of the porch groves. We saved and reused every stone that could be saved but most of the ashlar was replaced with new stone from the Portland Brownstone quarries. The cornice that were left in place were the subject of intense conservation treatments in situ. You see by the way the original cornice are darker against the background of lighter new stone.
The team that designed the effort was lead by architect David Fixlar, Brie Anatu, with the engineer. They were assisted by Ivan Miser who designed the conservation program, drawing on the best practice at home and abroad and also on the growing understanding of the chemistry and specifics of brownstone much of which was being gifted for by George Wheeler and George Shera. We reached out to Frank Matera of the University of Pennsylvania to undertake laboratory testing of the new treatments. Frank was going to be a presenter today but unfortunately he could not make it at the last minute. We had always planned to have the skilled graduate student John Glaven here and he’s expanded his talk to cover some of the material that Frank was going to present; along with his own material.
The planning team developed a small rigorously selected list of contractors who would be invited to do the work and Consigli Construction Co. won the project through a competitive bid in January 2004. Matthew Tanoh is here representing Consigli. We purchased new brownstone for the project from Mike Mia and Corpland Brownstone Quarry and finally, 30 years after he worked here with Morgan Phillips, architectural conservator, Andrew Ladygo, returned to perform the stone treatment.
I’ve just outlined the list of presenters for today. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that.
Now to look briefly to the future, we are planning a second phase of work involving the brownstone steps at the base of the towers. The stone fabrication is planned for the summer and construction next spring. The stairs going to be dismantled and rebuilt. Damaged stone will be repaired or replaced. The ballastrates and the massive handrails that were removed in the 1980s will be recreated. New altecare replicas of the fantastical cornice bursting with clusters of proof. You’re comments today may have an impact on how we go forward with that project.