A “Revealing” Project in the Office

From a stuffed bird under a dome to manual typewriters to crystal and silver desk sets, the Office at Tudor Place is so densely stuffed with fascinating objects that it can be hard to know where to look first. The room appears almost exactly as it did in the 1920s, when Armistead Peter, Jr., the estate’s third owner, made it his headquarters for correspondence, estate business, and numerous hobbies and collections, reflected in its furnishings today.

Visitors on a second tour or given the chance, as at Tudor Nights or another event, to linger a while, may notice a more recent oddity, however. In the room’s southwest corner, the forest green plaster has been removed, revealing exposed brick wall beneath.

This seeming flaw is there on purpose. The open corner serves as a reveal, letting visitors see the wall’s basic structure, covered on the house exterior by stucco and, indoors, by plaster. It also enables preservation staff to monitor for deterioration of bricks or plaster.

Recently, that’s precisely what our Director of Buildings, Gardens and Grounds found — bricks at risk of disintegration from water damage, threatening the integrity of the entire wall. Tudor Place staff carefully removed furniture, collections objects, and books from the area, and commissioned Federal Masonry to make repairs. They replaced the weakened bricks with ‘new’ ones from our cache of old and original bricks conserved from prior projects. They also removed unstable mortar, and repointed the fresh bricks with historically-based lime mortar.

Last, the green plaster lines were neatened to maintain the reveal as an educational feature in the otherwise pristinely finished room. Now you will know to take a closer look at the corner when you next come through the Office.

From the January Clean: An Unexpected Repair

Cleaning, counting, and assessing conditions are all part of the drill when the museum closes each year for what we call the “January Clean.” Rugs are rolled up, paintings removed from walls for examination, and the walls themselves examined. In the garden, bricks are relaid and trees trimmed amid the usual plant care and preparations for spring. The Museum Shop undergoes a careful inventory (14,000 postcards!), while in offices and workspaces elsewhere on the property, closets and cabinets are straightened, files sorted, and other year-long accumulations dealt with.

For collections staff especially, close examinations of objects left quietly undisturbed the other 11 months of the year leads sometimes to unexpected new projects. The repair of a heavy walnut desk bookcase in the North, or “children’s,” bedroom was one such. Armistead Peter 3rd, the estate’s last private owner, first brought the 19th century piece here from the family’s Content Farm, a Washington County, New York, property where they spent several months each year. Today, the desk bookcase holds school books, novels, small toys, and other objects from “AP3’s” childhood.

The desk bookcase is actually two separate pieces, an upper cabinet with two glazed doors that sits upon a desk with drawers and a fall-board writing surface. When they examined it as part of a routine January inspection, Curator Grant Quertermous and Collections Manager Kris Barrow found one of its rear feet had loosened too much to support the piece’s weight. To relieve the immediate pressure, staff removed the item’s entire contents and the upper case.

As so often happens with a “lived-in” collection like ours, long in use, Grant and Kris needed first to address an earlier repair. The leg had had been reglued during the mid-1900s, and the adhesive from this earlier repair had weakened over time.  The leg and glue block (itself replaced sometime in the 20th century) had separated from their attachment point at the desk’s back corner, placing additional stress on the carved bracket foot.

The term “glue block” might be unfamiliar unless you collect or study antique furniture: It describes a small piece of wood that braces a corner joint — on this piece, where the two sides of the ogee bracket foot are joined.  A piece like this desk bookcase, where the carved bracket foot is simply decorative, actually rests in back on two uncarved, square feet concealed behind the rear ogee bracket feet.  With this rear foot loose and the joint separated from the glue block, much of the piece’s weight was now on the non-supporting decorative element, rather than the intended weight-bearing element.

Had we not detected the loose foot, the bracket foot could have split or, worse, buckled under the weight of the desk bookcase and its contents. Fortunately, the necessary repairs were uncomplicated. Staff elevated the desk on its back on padded saw horses to relieve the bracket and gain access to the damaged area and applied wood glue in key spots to re-attach the foot and glue block.  Clamps were placed on the foot overnight to apply pressure while the glue dried.  All of the work was documented and photographed as this repair now becomes a part of the physical record of the desk bookcase and is noted in its file. The piece itself, meanwhile, once stabilized,  resumed its place along the wall and its familiar toys, books. and childhood treasures returned to its welcoming shelves.

Just one project among many, the exercise shows how the room-by-room January Clean enables us not just to monitor objects and spaces within the house but to undertake crucial conservation work where needed. For more complicated repairs and conservation, the January assessment often marks the starting point for extensive planning and, often, fundraising, for projects involving conservation specialists.  [Tudor Place members are invited each January for a New Year’s breakfast and behind-the-scenes look at the January Clean and projects underway, scheduled this year on January 23, 2016.]

Having completed the upstairs rooms during the first week of January, Collections staff have turned their attention to the Drawing Room and Parlour, including careful cleaning of chandeliers (see the video clip) to make their crystals gleam.  The Office, Kitchen and servants’ spaces follow toward the end of the month. Lastly, Grant will oversee the Dining Room installation for Presidents’ Day and spring’s highlighting of the Washington Collection, for which we happily welcome back the public when we reopen (at half price all month) on February 2, 2016.

View January Clean albums on Facebook:

“Gentleman of Georgetown:” Thomas Peter’s Portrait Assessed

Spectrometry revealed hidden layers in Thomas Peter's portrait.

Spectrometry revealed changes over time in Thomas Peter’s portrait.

When Tudor Place founder Thomas Peter sat for an oil portrait in the 1830s, riding crop in hand, the painter took pains to show him as a gentleman at ease. Recent conservation assessment of this significant Tudor Place painting, assumed to be by Peter’s son-in-law William G. Williams, found that past “improvements” and restorations, careful and well intentioned though they may have been, left their mark — and in some cases obscured the painter’s design. Conservation and removal of these later alterations revealed everything from an obscured equestrian scene to changes in the subject’s very dress. More recently, x-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry further defined what elements are present in the painting, and therefore possibly some pigments which may have been used by the artist.  Further information will be gained by special imaging techniques, including X-radiographs, infrared photography, and high-resolution UV photography.  It is perhaps an irony of progress that it takes modern photographic techniques to “restore” the lost elements of Williams’s design, but they also offer hope that enough of the original paint layers remain to make further conservation treatment worthwhile.

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“Make-Over” of a Rare Daguerreotype: Martha Parke Custis Peter and Granddaughter

Martha Peter Daguerreotype
To save an 1850s daguerreotype, a portrait of Tudor Place founder Martha Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854) with granddaughter Martha Custis Kennon (1843-1886), conservation took place early this year. Martha Peter’s father, John Parke (“Jacky”) Custis (1754-1781), was Martha Washington’s son from her first marriage. She and George Washington raised him at Mount Vernon, which is where Martha Peter — who appears in the daguerrotype as an old woman — was born. The Tudor Place daguuerreotype is one of only two known photographs of a grandchild of Martha Washington; the other is in the Library of Congress.

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Tudor Place Friends and Collaborators Celebrate National Preservation Award

Current and past staff members, consultants, conservators, and other supporters gathered June 18 to celebrate the bestowal on Tudor Place of the coveted Ross Merrill Award for Outstanding Commitment to the Preservation and Care of Collections. Cool wine and beverages offered relief from the heat for the 64 guests gathered for the awards ceremony, catered reception, and socializing in the Dower House administration building.  In recognition of a conservation focus that permeates all aspects of the house, collection, and grounds, select museum areas were open for viewing, with the spotlight on collection pieces that have received special conservation care.

“Tudor Place excels in telling its story,” enthused Eryl Wentworth, executive director of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) as she presented the award jointly with her counterpart from Heritage Preservation. The Merrill Award confirms Tudor Place’s reputation for a level of collections stewardship more often found in far larger institutions. Past recipients include the National Archives and Records Administration, Shelburne Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, among others. So selective is the awards committee, according to the AIC director, that in some years, since it was first presented in 1999, the prize was not awarded at all.

Since Leslie Buhler became executive director of Tudor Place 14 years ago, Ms. Wentworth said, “[I] have watched and applauded her stewardship of this remarkable site… There is no question in anyone’s mind–Tudor Place well deserves the honor of receiving this special award.”

In his remarks, Heritage Preservation President Larry Reger praised the long-term focus on preservation concerns that recommended Tudor Place to the committee. “Even in the early years of its transition from private ownership to a public institution, the Tudor Place Foundation made it a priority to ensure there was a sustained review its collections and archives,” he noted. The award recognizes, the comprehensiveness and systematic nature of the museum’s collections care, the daily attention devoted to it from an expanding collections staff, cultivation of strong board support, and the engagement of conservators, preservation architects, architectural historians, archivists, engineers and others with necessary skills.

In accepting the award, Ms. Buhler alluded to the capital campaign and Master Preservation Plan that will undergird the museum’s future. “What we collectively have achieved in the past is truly remarkable, but it is what we must achieve in the future that will secure Tudor Place,” she said, noting, “we are not celebrating in the main house tonight because of the heat. Not only is the heat dangerous for visitors and staff, but heat extremes cause fluctuations in humidity that damage the collection and archive.”

The proposed master plan includes HVAC modernization and other practical improvements crucial to conservation and preservation of valuable objects and structures, she noted, adding, “This is the future of Tudor Place, one that is imperative to secure if we are to continue to exist as a public museum.”

All images © AVANTphotoDC.

Conservation Studies Resource List compiled by Tudor Place staff

· Conservation ·

Tudor Place is dedicated to sharing best practices and new technologies in conservation and collections care through a variety of educational resources and workshops. For study and reference in this area, curatorial staff recommends these print and online resources.


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The Square Piano: Conservator’s Report

· Conservation ·

Purchased by Major George Peter (1779–1861), this 1804 John Broadwood & Sons instrument has remained in the Peter family for generations. A conservation and cleaning project undertaken in 2012 revealed that most of its parts are original and in an excellent state of preservation. Most notably, the instrument has a six-octave compass (with span from DD to d4) unique among surviving Broadwood pianofortes.


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