Restoring a wall-to-wall treasure at William Cullen Bryant's homestead
"This is a wonderful project right here," said wallpaper consultant Robert M. Kelly, of Lee, while pointing to the newly restored gilt wallpaper in the library of the historic home. "There is national caliber stuff going on here."
It's a restoration and reinstallation project 12 years in the making. In 2002, the historic home of the poet and once editor and publisher of The New York Evening Post for 50 years, began efforts to save the deteriorating original wallpaper from Bryant's Library. The Northeast Document Conservation Center of Andover recommended stripping, cleaning, lining and reinstalling the wallpaper, which has been dated from somewhere between 1865 and 1867, according to Kelly, who just this spring helped finish the project with Leslie Paisley, conservator of paper and department head at Williamstown Art Conservation Center.
"I had encouraged them to get something done because it was falling off the walls," said Kelly, who got involved with Bryant's once boyhood home through working on reproductions in two other rooms. "I had encouraged them to save it because it's an incredible thing."
Between 2002 and 2006 the gilt wallpaper with a flocked border -- almost a velour fabric -- was painstakingly removed, piece by piece -- some pieces no bigger than the palm of your hand -- and documented right down to which pieces overlapped, where they were on the wall and how they laid in relation to each other. Documentation that came in hand last year, when the project was taken back up by Kelly and Paisley thanks to the Save America's Treasures grant the Homestead and The Trustees of Reservations received from the National Park Service.
"The pieces were very well packed and extremely well labeled," said Paisley of the work done by the NDCC, which could not come back to finish the project. "Each little piece that was missing was labeled. Normally, coming into a project that someone else started is really difficult. But I have to give them a lot of credit. There was one little piece we thought was missing, but it actually turned up -- kind of a miracle. This is the work of many hands and many minds."
For the past two years, Kelly and Paisley performed a delicate, well-coordinated dance of cleaning, lining and rehanging the historic paper for a seamless finish to the naked, untrained eye. When walking into the library -- an exact replica right down to the original furniture and books that Bryant must have looked at while sitting at his desk during his summer retreats to the sprawling, three-story Victorian cottage -- it's difficult to see signs of the work done on the two walls where the paper was removed and given new life.
But work was certainly done.
After the removal, Paisley was in charge of washing the paper to remove stains and bring it back to its original glory. After testing how sensitive the paper was to water, she performed the tricky task of stain removal by floating the paper in a low puddle of water, but without touching the front of it when wet because it was vulnerable to smudging. She then let it damp dry. Only then could she put it face down and line it, applying a wheat paste -- a strong, but water-soluble adhesive that's used in Japan to mount scrolls and screens. She then pressed the paper in between thick blotters, and finally stretch-dried and transported them back to the Homestead on large corrugated cardboard panels.
But the hard part wasn't over yet.
Next, Kelly, with the help of Paisley, had the difficult and time-consuming task of putting the wallpaper puzzle back together, with no room for error.
"It's complicated," he said. "I've worked with very touchy materials before. I've done it where I have to paste on the back and not getting anything on the front, which is this kind of job, but the additional challenge of having only so much to work with and that it would only be working in certain areas, you had to get it right. As you can imagine, if you get off a little bit, you're in big trouble."
Forty-nine pieces of wallpaper were removed and reinstalled in the room, according to Mark Wilson, curator of the Homestead.
"This is the one original room in the house," said Wilson, of the library that Bryant had rebuilt sometime between 1865 and 1867 as a replica of his father's study. "Not only is Bryant someone [the Trustees] hold dear, but this one room is so important because it's so exact -- you can see the desk, the chase lounge, everything is the same, right down to the book on the chair."
They know it's exact thanks to an etching Bryant had made of the library, which is so detailed you can even see tiny hints of the small vines crawling down the wallpaper.
"He looked up and saw this exact wallpaper while he was writing," said Paisley, who also mentions she "gets chills" when she thinks about it, standing in the middle of the room.
In the well-lit room, thanks to large windows on all of the exterior walls that overlook the Westfield River Valley, it's feels as if time has stood still despite the outside environments best efforts to deteriorate the home's original furnishings. Amazingly, Paisley points out, the family never changed the library.
"The evolution of any house is you do change it," she said "But this house, you didn't have layers of wallpaper because it stayed in the same family."
In the end, Wilson said the work done on that portion of the home came to about $30,000.
"Old buildings do what they want to do," he said pointing to the cracks in the ceiling, evidence of the foundation settling over time. "We're so fortunate they didn't just rip it out and redo it."
Kelly -- who has worked as a paperhanger and worked at the White House, Andrew Jackson's Hermitage and written "The Backstory of Wallpaper: Paper-Hangings 1650-1750" -- said its high-end, "snazzy" paper. But when rehanging it, he found some issues with the original engineering, but those imperfections he left, he said, because that's what the work is about.
"When doing this type of work, the question of taste is out the door because what you're doing is replicating what they did," he said. "You're not trying to improve it. If you try to improve it, you're off on a tangent somewhere and you're also applying our 21st-century eyes to it. We try to get back to how they did it and replicate it. And not make any assumptions about what they would have done had they been us."
If you go ...
What: The William Cullen Bryant Homestead
Where: 207 Bryant Road, Cummington
When: The grounds, with 2.5 miles of footpaths and moderate hiking, is open year-round, sunrise to sunset. Tours of the house vary, but you can call to arrange a time to tour the home.
For more information: Call (413) 532-1631, or visit www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/pioneer-valley/bryant-homestead
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.