Early American Wallpaper Recovered from George Washington Waxwork

Press Contact:
Communications Officer
Mandy Katz, mkatz@tudorplace.org
202.965.0400 ext. 112
Website: www.tudorplace.org
Tudor Place Historic House and Garden
1644 31st Street NW
Washington, DC 2007

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January 25, 2012

Washington, D.C. – January 25, 2012 — Tudor Place Historic House & Garden conservators andcurators received a rare glimpse of early American interior design this week with the discovery of a well-preserved sample of block-printed 18th-century wallpaper. The roughly 10-inch piece had been used on a handmade cabinet belonging to George Washington and his wife. Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Custis Peter, and her husband, the founders of Tudor Place, purchased the cabinet in 1802 from Mrs. Washington’s estate.

The wallpaper had covered the top of the Washingtons’ piece, a wax and shellwork tableau
crafted by New York entrepreneur Samuel Fraunces in the 1780s. Its discovery and
conservation portend other valuable insights likely to emerge from study of the Fraunces
piece, which is undergoing a two-year, $37,400 conservation project involving specialists
in wax, textiles, and paper. The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, based in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, is funding the project.

“We are thrilled with this significant discovery and look forward to further research
opportunities presented by the samples,” said Tudor Place Executive Director Leslie

Adding further interest to the paper’s discovery are indications that it was manufactured
by a burgeoning domestic industry, rather than in England. A few American wallpaper
manufactories were established by the end of the 1700s, and some produced papers that
surpassed the quality of British or French imports, notes Curator of Collections Erin
Kuykendall. “The simple, repeating floral pattern printed in pink and green is typical for
late eighteenth-century American-made wallpapers,” she said. “Further research may help
identify a specific American manufacturer or retailer.”

Decorating walls with printed papers from England, France, or America was common in elite and middling American households by the late 1700s. Samples rarely survive, however, due to paper’s inherent fragility and householders’ tendency to remove or paint it over time. And samples like this one, over 10 inches in length and bearing multiple design repeats, are particularly rare. Wallpaper samples that do survive are most commonly found sealing the backs of picture frames, covering and lining books, or lining the interior of boxes and trunks, making this an unusual find.

The waxwork paper sample bears a polychromatic floral-and-vine stripe design block printed on laid paper and appears to be torn around the edges. Conservators found it under two additional layers of paper applied over time. The middle piece was a monochromatic blue wallpaper of a lesser quality in extremely poor condition. The outermost layer consisted of a patterned wallpaper dating stylistically to the mid-19th century that had been cut into multiple pieces and attached in a sort of patchwork.

“We were surprised by the excellent condition of the eighteenth-century paper, despite a
significant accumulation of soiling trapped above and below the layer,” noted conservator
Nancy Purinton, of Purinton Preservation, Inc. During the three days removal process,
conservators first humidified the layers to relax the adhesive binding them. Next, using
special spatulas, they gently lifted each layer onto a piece of archival fabric inserted
beneath it. Using the fabric as a support, they then lifted each paper away from the wooden

The wallpaper removal is one of many complicated procedures involved in the overall
conservation of Fraunces’s rare wax and shellwork tableau depicting the Greek warrior,
Hector, bidding farewell to Andromache as he returns to battle. Fraunces, who served as
steward of the Washingtons’ presidential household in Philadelphia, operated Manhattan
enterprises including the Queen Charlotte’s Head Tavern near Wall Street and the former
Vauxhall pleasure gardens on the Upper East Side.

Located in Georgetown’s Historic District, this National Historic Landmark is a house museum distinguished for its neoclassical architecture, decorative arts collection, and five-and-a-half acre garden. Built in 1816, it was home to Thomas Peter and his wife, Martha Custis Peter, granddaughter of Martha Washington. It housed six generations of the Peter family over the course of 180 years. Now, open to the public, the historic home is one of our nation’s hidden gems. For details visit www.tudorplace.org

What Lies Beneath: A Peek Behind the Physical Fabric of Tudor Place

By Elizabeth Peebles, Preservation Manager

While Tudor Place is closed to the public in January, the entire property buzzes with activity to ensure the long-term preservation of collections and buildings. As an added bonus, what’s good for maintenance and preservation is good for scholarship and inquiry.

Tudor Place Foundation exists not just to maintain its historic treasures, but also to learn from and interpret them. Whether we’re replacing a roof, installing new capitals, rebuilding an arbor, restoring an iron gate–most every project we undertake offers insights into the foundations of this noteworthy 1816 estate. Behind every surface, we find clues to how it was built and why it has lasted.

It is humbling to think that only a handful of people (and with this post, you, too!) have ever seen this part of the physical fabric of Tudor Place. Enjoy this peek into three conservation and restoration projects currently underway:

31st Street Entrance
Our iconic entrance gate is showing signs of its age.

Rust is encroaching on the historic iron gates:

So off they went!

Last week, Conservation Solutions hauled the ironwork to their workshop for cleaning and recoating. Conservators will also replicate a few elements, like this missing finial.

The adjacent pedestrian gate will be carted off next for similar treatment and we should be welcoming back the refreshed and renewed gate in four to six weeks. In the meantime, you’ll see this temporary replacement if you visit:

North Entrance Capitals
Tudor Place’s main entrance centers the mansion’s north side and was originally constructed with flanking capitals made from locally quarried Aquia Creek sandstone. During 1914 renovations overseen by Armistead Peter, Jr., the capitals were removed and replaced with pilasters of cast concrete.

At least, we thought they had been removed. When the building’s stucco facade was removed in 2007, we found that much of the original sandstone blocks remained embedded in the thick walls behind the concrete replacements. When the stucco was replaced, these remnants remained hidden behind plaster pilasters temporarily inserted to replace the concrete ones (seen above).

But longer term measures were needed. After considering all the options, our Buildings and Grounds Committee decided to restore Aquia Creek sandstone above the door, after an absence of almost 100 years.

The Virginia-sourced stone appears in some of Washington’s most prominent early buildings, including the White House and U.S. Capitol. George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, too, has Aquia Creek sandstone features, which proved fortunate for us, as Mount Vernon generously donated an unused piece of the material for use in the new capitals.

First, we removed the temporary plaster-pilaster capitals in place since 2007, revealing the remnants of the beautiful original sandstone. The pieces appear to recede through the full depth of the wall, and you can see the outline of the original molding profile:

As a guide in shaping the new sandstone blocks, the stone carver is referring to molding profile drawings from 1914, as well as traces of the original profiles still seen (as above) in the existing wood trim . It will take him a few weeks of carving before we can install the new pieces.

Temple Portico Roof
While the house’s main entrance anchors the north side, the south facade’s Temple Portico is possibly its most memorable feature. This month, for the first time in at least 100 years, its semi-domed roof is being pulled back, and its frame exposed to the open air.

The project addresses a vexing problem of longstanding. Moisture has been seeping for years into the southeast bedroom on the second floor, opposite the spot where the Temple Portico’s molded-steel gutter meets the exterior outside wall.


Earlier, less invasive attempts to repair the damage did not work. (The water damage seen below is usually concealed behind a bureau!)


The first option considered was simply relining the gutter. But after further examination, Wagner Roofing recommended completely replacing the Portico’s tin roof and metal flashing, and the Buildings & Grounds Committee approved this approach. The tin pans that comprise the roof are rusting and have grown thin from years of exposure to the elements. As far as we know, the replacement of this roof is the first since the 1800s: 20th-century improvements to the Portico dome appear to have been limited to minor repairs and many, many layers of paint.

Last week we opened a small portion of the roof to investigate existing conditions:

In the photo above right, you can see the pine rafters that shape the dome.

In a few weeks we will have installed the complete scaffolding, documented the existing metal roof, removed the metal, documented the visible wood framing below, and installed new flashing, roof, and gutter liner. Once spring weather arrives, Federal Masonry will return to replace the surrounding stucco removed to install the flashing.

Be sure to check back for pictures of the finished projects. Or better still, visit us soon to see for yourself!

Tudor Place Historic House & Garden, in Georgetown, is one of the District of Columbia’s first National Historic Landmarks. Tours are offered hourly Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sundays, 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. (Doors close at 4:00.) The house is closed Mondays and throughout the month of January. For those seeking insights beyond the regular docent’s tour, special tours can be scheduled for groups of 10 or more.