The Art of Preservation at Chesterwood

By Special Contributor posted 08-16-2017 16:46


By Valerie Balint

Artists’ homes frequently represent a unique combination of a domestic environment and a laboratory for experimenting with new modes of artistic expression. At home, unfettered by the need to satisfy patrons, the artist is free to try their hand at architecture, landscape design, decorative interiors—or all three. Sculptor Daniel Chester French’s summer retreat at Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is an example such an environment—one personally conceived by the artist, where inspiration meets the ultimate in DIY. These homes allow visitors to witness creativity firsthand and gain insight into the aesthetics and impulses that inform artistic practice, but they can be challenging for those of us who steward their continued preservation. Artists or their colleagues frequently create unique sculpted or painted elements in situ, often with experimental materials. These are both distinct artworks by professional artists and architectural elements that cannot be separated from the overall buildings. The recent conservation and rehabilitation of the breakfast porch at Chesterwood is an excellent example of the balance of artistry and science required in the conversation or restoration of such sites.

The breakfast porch at Chesterwood | Credit: Image courtesy of Margaret Saliske and Chris Mills

A Stuccoed Italianate Dream in the Heart of the Berkshires

Daniel Chester French is most noted for his classically inspired iconic portrait sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the memorial in Washington, D.C. Throughout his career, French drew on Classical modes, and his formative art instruction occurred in Florence, Italy, between 1874 and 1876. Many decades later, when French had become an accomplished sculptor of public monuments throughout the country, he purchased a summer home in Stockbridge. Here, surrounded by the beauty of the nearby Berkshire mountains and lush forests, he created a sanctuary that referenced his time in Italy—most notably by choosing stucco as the building finish for both the house and the studio. French’s deep understanding of spatial relationships led him to create numerous outdoor rooms and piazzas in which to enjoy his natural surroundings. Among these was the breakfast porch, located on the east side of the house and meant for viewing the morning mists rising off the distant hills.

The walls of this porch were finished with the same stucco as the house exterior, then decorated with French’s personal vision of garden rooms and Italian grottos—executed by French’s sister-in-law, academically trained painter Alice Helm French. She painted large swaths of floral and fruit garlands on each wall, covered them with honey-colored, textured glaze, and affixed plaster Renaissance plaques and decorative latticework to the walls. A painted plaster cast of a Renaissance Madonna and child was embedded into one of the walls. In the ensuing decades, she would touch up the work as it began to degrade, but this was an uphill battle given that painted plaster and stucco are not well suited to New England’s prolonged dampness and harsh winters. As Chesterwood nears its 50th anniversary as a public site, the toll on the buildings’ exteriors and the porch had reached a tipping point.


Margaret French Cresson and Amira Lou Herron on the Breakfast Porch in 1962. | Credit: Collection Chapin Library at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Margaret French Cresson Scrapbook III

Methodology and Execution

Large-scale efforts to restore the exteriors of the house and studio began in 2013. With an eye to long-term sustainability, the original walls were neither stabilized nor restored with historic stucco mixes, but rather completely replaced with new complementary materials that are better suited to the northeastern climate. The one exception was the breakfast porch—the distinct art elements of its unique decorative finishes necessitated a different approach. Working with site staff and Ashley Wilson—Graham Gund Architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation—painted finishes conservator, Margaret Saliske and architectural conservator Chris Mills came up with a treatment proposal. They sought to recapture French’s vision for the overall feel of the porch, preserving the original historic fabric where possible and, elsewhere, using materials that can better withstand the damp conditions going forward. Repairing the cracked walls required a flexible fill material that can both move with the changing environment and accept paint. Binders for the paint were selected for their ability to promote permeability and long performance while retaining the aesthetic and subtle nuance of the original, more fragile materials.

The team initially relied on a paint analysis report conducted in 1992 by Matthew J. Mosca, a historic paint finishes consultant. The original ceiling paint and glaze were both made with hand-ground pigments. The ceiling paint was originally a bright yellow distemper. Distemper paints, have ancient origins and contain water, chalk, and pigment bound with glues of animal or vegetable origin. They are water soluble, ephemeral finishes that are not suitable for damp or moist areas like the breakfast porch. The walls and their artistic ornamentation were originally painted with oil paints. The walls around the decoration were a warm tan color, covered with an oil glaze application that was originally green-grey. The glaze was unique in that is was hand ground, likely onsite, using terra verde, burnt sienna, and raw sienna pigments. Most of these paints and glazes had failed and then been repainted many times, except the hand-painted decoration—many of its original paints were degraded and fragile but intact.

Conservator Margaret Saliske in-painting the plaster relief. | Credit: Image courtesy of Margaret Saliske and Chris Mills

Saliske studied the remaining decoration to distinguish original layers from overpaint and thus better understand the artist’s hand and intent. She consolidated friable and loose paint and applied a protective and reversible barrier. She then used acrylic medium and pigments to inpaint the losses, returning the whimsical decorative elements to their original vibrancy and saturation. Using traditional materials to reproduce the distemper and oil paint on the walls and ceiling would have been both cost prohibitive and impractical for long-term sustainability, so the collective decision was made to use alternate finishes that better suits the environment.

Once Mills had repaired and consolidated the substrate, the walls were prepped with potassium silicate base paint. This hybrid mineral paint was also used to simulate the original distemper paint on the ceiling. These types of paints works well with masonry and cementitious substrates—like those on the porch—allowing moisture to migrate through the walls and paint layers, which helps ensure that repainting will not be necessary for a number of years.

Artistry in the Science of Conservation

Beyond the damp environment that had caused the original paints to fail, the most challenging aspect of the project was getting the glaze right. French-era articles about Chesterwood mentioned the hue of the walls, and the 1992 paint study had clearly identified the composition of the glaze. But its warm tone, which French had likely used to evoke visions of Italy, had been completely lost over time. Nonetheless, Mills and Saliske were able to get a better sense of the intended effect as they worked on the project and looked at the walls firsthand. To achieve a more permeable glaze that would work with the base paint, they deployed a bit of the same creativity that French and his sister-in-law had relied on when first decorating the space. Using a muller and slab, they hand-ground pigments into the same potassium silicate binder used in the base paints and relied on their artistry to decide just how heavily to apply the glaze to achieve the desired result. Working on exterior decorative finishes with this level of artistic intention was a unique experience for Mills and Saliske, who most often work indoors. This kind of onsite problem solving is intrinsic to such projects and, while challenging, is ultimately invigorating for conservators once they feel they have cracked the code!

Now that the porch has been restored, visitors can again enjoy this space, which was once a locus for daily family life. French’s daughter, Margaret French Cresson, confirms that, shortly after its completion, family and guests regularly took meals on the porch—as outdoor dining is a hallmark of summer life in the Berkshires. The restoration project was made possible through a grant from the Stockbridge Community Preservation Committee and by longtime Chesterwood supporter and honorary council member Mr. Ingersoll Cunningham and his wife. Cunningham’s primary desire was to evoke for visitors the images recounted by his mother, Theresa Cunningham, of delightful company and lively conversation with Margaret French Cresson on this very porch.

Valerie Balint is the program manager for Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation based at Chesterwood. She has previously worked curatorially at several artists’ homes. Her thanks go to Maragret Saliske and Chris Mills and to Chesterwood curatorial researcher Dana Pilson and intern Maggie Mitts.

#conservation #HistoricSites #art

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