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Crash Test

A house museum battles the ravages of time, as well as a runaway SUV.

Project: Butler-McCook House, Hartford, CT

Architects: Roger Clarke, AIA, Hartford, CT; Roger Clarke, principal

By Dan Cooper

The Butler-McCook House in Hartford, CT, is a multigenerational time capsule; built in the late-18th century, it was occupied by the same family for almost 200 years before being given to Connecticut's Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, which has maintained it as a museum since 1971. Due to its unbroken chain of ownership, the house is a unique example of upper-class Hartford life, for the McCooks were also meticulous record keepers and the evolution of the interiors has been documented through the ages by their extensive journals and photographs. The authenticity of the residence is similarly enhanced by the presence of its original furnishings as the family left them.

That was, until around six o'clock in the morning of August 4, 2002, when a large sport utility vehicle blasted through the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Main Street and plowed through the wall of the south parlor, coming to rest on the hearth. The damage to the structure and its furnishings was significant, and the landmarks society immediately undertook a restoration plan in collaboration with Hartford-based architect Roger Clarke, AIA. Ironically, this meticulous restoration might never have occurred if not for the accident, for the house had been left to the landmarks society in reasonably good condition and the interiors had not been previously subjected to a detailed analysis.

This was no ordinary old house, as Beverly J. Lucas, curator of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, explains. "The Butler-McCook House is Hartford's oldest house and defines this historic area of downtown Hartford along with the Bull Tavern and Charter Oak Temple," she says. "From 1782 to 1971, the Butler and McCook families lived in their 18th-century ancestral home on Main Street, and the house reflects four generations of family life and is the city's oldest intact collection of art and antiques. It is also a treasure trove of documents, artifacts and photographs, which reveal the story of family, home and neighborhood.

"After recovering from the initial shock of the accident, the landmark society seized upon the opportunity to carefully research the interior finishes of the damaged rooms, resulting in the reproduction of several wallpapers and the re-painting of the interior based on paint analysis. Guided by photographic and documentary evidence, we were able to create a rich and historically accurate backdrop for the Butler and McCook families' artifacts."

"The impact of the crash," adds Lucas, "caused serious structural and cosmetic damage to the building and collections." In fact, a central load-bearing wall had been crumpled by the vehicle, endangering the integrity of the entire post-and-beam structure. "Once construction crews had stabilized the building, the painstaking process of restoration was begun," says Lucas. "The damaged front exterior was restored, which included reproducing the original window, clapboarding and porch column. In the south parlor, which received the brunt of the impact, carpenters salvaged as much of the original 18th-century woodwork as possible. Using this woodwork as a guide, they reproduced the remaining paneling and wainscoting to properly re-install the room. One half of the marble mantelpiece, installed by the McCooks in the 19th century, was also severely damaged. Restoration specialists used marble imported from Italy to replace the areas of the mantelpiece which were shattered by the impact."

The Butler-McCook house is a textbook study in the evolution of the American interior. Much of the historical significance of the south parlor and its transformations can be observed through the changes the occupants made over time. A pristine 18th-century raised-panel wall was redecorated with a mid-19th-century white-marble mantle, as was common for the Second Empire fashion. The narrow-width, wall-to-wall carpets had been pulled up as the Aesthetic Movement promoted the use of bare floors embellished with oriental rugs. The walls were re-papered during that time, and the ceilings papered as well, a fashion that lasted only two or three decades. All the while, many original furnishings came and went as dictated by the needs of the family, fortunately with the most important examples remaining to the present.

Aside from the inadvertent automotive redecorating, the most dramatic recent change to the south parlor's appearance was the re-creation of the late-19th-century wallpapers that were in place in the early-20th century, which is now the museum's period of interpretation. Using the accident as a catalyst to initiate a comprehensive study of the interior, "photographs and existing wallpaper fragments were carefully examined in order to accurately reproduce the historic decorative treatments in the library, south parlor and hallway to restore these three rooms to their ca. 1913 appearance," explains Lucas. "Connecticut Landmarks had nine separate papers, including wall, ceiling and border papers, reproduced to complete the house's historic decorative treatment."

When the house was first given over to the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society in the 1970s, a reproduction of the existing wallpaper was printed and installed, but as well-known independent curator and consultant Marianne Curling remarks, "The reproduction paper was printed with a thinner application of color and fuzzier treatment of the pattern. Also, the reproduction paper used more blue than the original." This earlier wallpaper reproduction was also off-scale and not as delicate.

Charged with investigating the proper interior treatments, Curling elaborates that in the aftermath of the crash, she was hired to document the wall and ceiling finishes. "At the request of Beverly Lucas," she says, "I also reviewed images of the rooms to assess what would be required to present the walls and ceilings as they appeared ca. 1915." Curling was also asked to report on the floor surfaces and window treatments for the first-floor rooms.

The Butler and McCook families had always decorated the house in the fashionable styles of the period, from its origins until well into the 20th century. "The McCook home just prior to World War I was at its most highly decorated moment," says Curling. "The south parlor received perhaps the most complicated wall and ceiling treatment in the house. According to entries in the Reverend McCook's journal, the paper was selected on October 10, 1878, and was changed on October 11 following the selection of a new carpet and border. Apparently this paper stayed in place until the plaster fell in 1933, an event that led to a complete change.

"The family began repapering the interior of the house in 1875 and continued for a decade. They expanded the home into the third floor in 1882 to accommodate their growing family, and added bathrooms and modern lighting. On the first floor, they papered and carpeted their living spaces with the 'latest' in design, selecting papers in the up-to-the-moment Aesthetic and Anglo-Japanese styles."

Curling's suggestions are documented with period photographs and existing samples as well as references recorded by Reverend McCook in his journals. The wallpaper, which was reprinted for greater accuracy than its 1970s predecessor, is an Aesthetic design with stylized flowers in a grid framework, printed in metallic gold, red and white on a yellow ochre background.

To reproduce the late-19th-century ceiling treatment, Curling specified that six sections be used to create the design, including a fill pattern and three gilt stripes that were divided by two dark color bands. To enhance this, an 8-in.-wide, multicolored floral border was printed. This was unusual for an Aesthetic Movement interior, as wide borders were more typically employed at the tops of walls as a frieze. The ceiling paper, re-created from photos, features sets of three circles composed of ribbons and accented with floral patterns. This array was finished with a gilt picture molding. Curling also dressed the windows as they were originally photographed, with half curtains constructed of sheer linen.

Some of the furnishings and other elements were deemed beyond repair. "Unfortunately," says Lucas, "some objects, such as the family's musical instruments, including the piano and a marble-top cabinet, were destroyed." The piano's demise was doubly painful; it was propelled through the back wall of the parlor and into the library, directly on top of the McCook collection of antique Japanese armor and pottery.

Furniture conservators were summoned to address the damage to several important objects, including an 18th-century high chest, desk and wing chair, but perhaps the most dramatic rescue was the work needed to restore the 1830s Empire sofa, which was completely flattened by the runaway vehicle. "Newlywed Eliza Royse Sheldon Butler purchased the sofa in 1837 from Isaac Wright of Hartford for $85," says Lucas. "Part of her wedding furniture, she described the empire sofa as 'a tufted seat and square forms with small pillars in front.'" The sofa exploded from the impact of the crash, resulting in approximately 25 broken joints, 30 broken and missing parts and five major and 10 minor areas of abrasion damage. Furniture conservators devoted approximately 270 hours of labor restoring the sofa, including extensive repair and finish work before it was reupholstered.

"Flying debris damaged many of the paintings in the south parlor," says Lucas, "resulting in punctures, tears and holes in the canvases. The room displayed the Butler and McCook family portraits and artwork painted by Eliza Butler McCook during her European tour of 1856 to 1858. We had specialists repair the tears and filled and in-painted the losses as required." Lucas is confident that the average visitor will be unable to detect the extensive damage the paintings received.

When viewed on a recent visit, the south parlor, as well as the central hall and library, reveal no signs of the house's violent and unwelcome intrusion. The painstaking restorations to the structure and its furnishings, coupled with the wall and ceiling papers, enhance the interiors of the first floor and contribute to the understanding of the sequential design changes that occurred there, from Federal to Victorian and on to Edwardian. Aside from its obvious importance in Hartford history, the house is a striking example of how residential interiors progressed. Because of the documentation and the original collections, little is changed from the time when the owners departed, and thus the rooms appear to be lived in and not a contrived stage set as often occurs with museum installations. As Lucas says, "The Butler-McCook house continues to tell the history of Hartford's Main Street through the eyes of the four generations of the family who lived there." 

 

 

 
 

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