Conservators like wallpaper at Hayes Home in Fremont
FREMONT - Emily Helwig and Albert Albano teetered atop a 10-foot ladder to get a better look at the cream-and-gold wallpaper covering the ceiling of President Rutherford B. Hayes' drawing room.
The block-printed paper - a lattice filigree pattern with center starbursts - was hung in 1881 as the president and his wife, Lucy, were preparing to move back to Spiegel Grove from the White House. It is 125 years old, give or take, and the only original wallpaper left in the 31-room mansion.
"The good news is the paper is in a very good state of preservation with a lot of localized damages," said Mr. Albano, executive director of the Cleveland-based Intermuseum Conservation Association.
Mr. Albano and Ms. Helwig, a paper conservator, were at the Hayes Home Friday to examine the historic wallpaper and make recommendations for treatment that will keep it there for another century.
The home is currently undergoing a $1 million-plus restoration, funded in part by a $400,000 Save America's Treasures grant from the National Park Service.
Thomas Culbertson, executive director of the Hayes Presidential Center, said he doesn't expect the wallpaper to look like new, but he wants it to be stabilized so it does not deteriorate further.
"Our goal would be to make sure it stays there another 125 years," he said.
What Mr. Albano and Ms. Helwig found during their inspection was expected surface grime and discoloration along with evidence of "modest" water damage at the south end of the ceiling, some areas where the wallpaper had separated from the ceiling, and other areas where someone had attempted to re-paint the design on the paper.
Mr. Albano said the touch-ups were "really, really badly done," but felt the damage could be repaired by removing what appeared to be soluble paint.
Ms. Helwig, who has worked on paper conservation projects at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said the wallpaper likely survived for more than a century because it was on the 13-foot ceiling rather than the walls where it would have gotten marred and faded by light.
It also might have fared better, she said, if there were not extreme changes in temperature and humidity inside the Hayes Home over the years and for the simple fact that "they made stuff better then."
The 19th president kept meticulous records of his purchases and the work that was done to his Fremont home. One ledger from December, 1881, lists a purchase of 14 rolls of wallpaper for $2.80, 16 yards of border for $1.28, and a daily payment of $2.25 for the head wallpaper hanger, D.S. Moses.
Mr. Culbertson said he's never been able to figure out why the wallpaper in the drawing room survived when all of the other rooms had been repapered several times over the years with no trace of the old paper left behind.
"They must have thought it was something special that they could work off of," he said, referring to the rather classic design of the ceiling paper.
In any event, having the original wallpaper, especially in relative good shape, is a stroke of good luck for those overseeing the restoration.
Mr. Culbertson said one of the more expensive parts of the project is having restoration experts re-create and specially manufacture reproductions of the original wallpaper that hung in the red parlor, the master bedroom, and the dramatic hallway that runs through the center of the house.
While the reproduction wallpaper will be closely matched to photographs that exist of those rooms from the days when the president lived in the house, having the original wallcovering in the drawing room is the best possible situation, Mr. Albano said.
"It's very critical because most people have a very distorted notion of history that's often based on romanticism and selective memory," he said. "The key mission is to respect the historic integrity of the property and its contents and represent them largely intact."
He said visitors to the Hayes home - filled with nearly all of its original furnishings, paintings, and knickknacks - get to see the real deal, "not Hollywood-ized, not altered to the point of being a faade movie set reproduction."
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