Effort to restore Daniel Chester French's studio begins

Tuesday October 2, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE - Though it's firmly planted in Washington, D.C., keeping the same pose for millions of camera-clicking tourists since 1922, the Lincoln Memorial's statue began as an idea by sculptor Daniel Chester French at his Chesterwood estate in this small Berkshires town.

But that place of inception - a studio designed by architect Henry Bacon on French's 122-acre estate in Stockbridge - is showing its age: Metal laths within the studio's walls are deteriorating, and the stucco exterior is cracking at the lack of structural support.

In response, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation each has awarded a $250,000 grant to work toward restoring and preserving the studio.

Engineers inspected the inner walls of the studio two years ago by cutting a few rectangles into the stucco and using an engineering probe to investigate inside.

Restoration efforts for a stronger building structure and exterior will begin sometime in November, during the estate's offseason. The estate will be open to the public through Oct. 14.

"The building is stable, and we certainly wouldn't make any adjustments that we wouldn't need to," said Donna Hassler, Chesterwood's director.

The building is owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, based in the nation's capital. Senior Director of Site Stewardship Cindi Malinick oversees preservation efforts taking place at Trust sites, and she said she has a " love" for Chesterwood.

"[It] is a very important site in the Trust portfolio," she said. "It's the only one site that is a former artist's home and studio. It tells an important story. I think it's a place of inspiration, and that's why French built it in the first place."

Work on the studio, designed and built in 1898, will carry throughout the next calendar year and through the grounds' next season, which starts in May. This is the first phase of restoring the estate.

"People will be able to see the preservation that's ongoing and will be able to see the studio as it is worked on," Hassler said.

In 1916, French created a one-third scale model of the Lincoln Memorial statue, which was designed by Bacon. It would act as the blueprint for the 19- foot icon in Washington, D.C.

The original 6- foot model remains on display in French's studio, which Bacon built.

Hailed as " the dean of American sculptors," according to Hassler, French created 100 works of art by himself and collaborated with Bacon on another 50 - chief among them the Lincoln Memorial statue.

"A lot of people may not know the association with Daniel Chester French and the Lincoln Memorial, but that association becomes known by the time people leave," Hassler said.

Bacon's studio design includes a trolley system that uses a small strip of railroad to transport pieces outside the studio, and north-facing windows, key for utilizing sunlight in shading the plaster.

"This is such a unique example of a sculptor's studio," Hassler said.

Busts and sculptures of all shapes and sizes, mostly done by French, line the walls of the building.

Weybridge, Vt., couple Carol Washington and Donald Moore were musing at the mini- Lincoln on Friday, and how it can be disassembled into eight pieces for easier transportation. The sculpture in D.C. can break down into 28 pieces.

"I love going to places to see what's happened, what's happening, and what will happen," Washington said. "Seeing this statue of the Lincoln Memorial and his other work is almost like seeing history in the making."

Though now an exhibit and gathering place, the studio still is used as a working space by some artists. Last Friday, sculptor Marc Mellon hunched over a lit working area as the Lincoln model towered over him. He was outlining President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's faces on a piece of paper. It was the sketch of what could become the 2013 inauguration medal.

Mellon will do conceptual designs for both an Obama and Romney inauguration medal, and he'll submit them alongside a handful of other artists competing for the winning design.

Mellon's design of Obama was the winner in 2009.

" There's something very poetic designing the [second] inauguration medal for our first black president underneath the Abraham Lincoln statue," Mellon said.

To reach Adam Poulisse: apoulisse@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6214.

On Twitter: BE_Poulisse


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