Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Restoration of the Drawing Room Sofa

We want to thank former intern and employee Andrea Monteleone for authoring this blog post.  Andrea has a BA in History from Marist College and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Binghamton University.  

Have you ever strolled through a historic house and found your gaze lingering upon the textiles on display? Our eyes are easily drawn to the intricate patterns, colors, and textures offered by decorative fabrics. You might notice drapes framing windows, and how their colors often enhance the design and feeling of a room, without distracting from the view out of the window. Perhaps the walls of a room are completely covered in fabric. A glance around at these large cuts of fabric may instill a sense of comfort and warmth, or conversely, intimidation and formality. Maybe your attention is drawn to a piece of furniture, such as an upholstered chair or sofa, and you find yourself wanting to know if it is comfortable to sit on. Design historian Margaret Ponsonby has remarked, “Focusing on textiles provides a medium for understanding the meanings that interiors had for their inhabitants in the past and enriches our experience of history in the present.”[1] Indeed, textiles offer present-day staff and visitors to historic houses clues into interior design decisions and how spaces functioned. This often helps us better understand people and cultures of a different time. 

Take, for example, an upholstered sofa like this one:

Chesterfield-style sofa, 2018

This Chesterfield-style brocade sofa, created circa 1895, sits in the dignified drawing room at Staatsburgh. The drawing room was one of the principal rooms used by Mrs. Ruth Livingston Mills to entertain her female guests during the Gilded Age, particularly between 1897 and 1920. Gilded Age ladies of the upper class were required to spend several hours each week engaged in the ritual of "paying calls," and would be received in an opulent drawing room such as this one, filled also with paintings and objets d'art, to inspire conversation.  A superb cup of tea, discussion of new gowns designed by the House of Worth, and perhaps a bit of gossip are what women who once sat on this sofa might have experienced.

Drawing rooms were traditionally seen as female spaces that provided lively social interaction.  One architectural critic describes the "...drawing room, the mistress's throne room,..the rallying point of the whole life of the house, the room in which one talks, reads and spends idle hours, the room in which he occupants assemble before meals and amuse themselves afterwards with conversation and play." [2]

Commodious female spaces in the Victorian and Gilded Age periods tended to contain opulent and comfortable (or at least comfortable-appearing) furniture.  Staatsburgh's drawing room sofa is an elegant piece of furniture that looks soft to the touch, wouldn’t you say? Soft, like the silk dresses worn by upper-class women during the Gilded Age.  This style of luxurious stuffed furniture, replete with many large cushions, is typical of furniture in Gilded Age rooms presided over and occupied by women, but not uniformly appreciated by men.  As early as 1868, a well-known arbiter of taste, Charles Eastlake, took a stand against sofas over-endowed with cushions:
"How often do we see in fashionable drawing rooms a couch which seems to be composed of nothing but cushions...I do not wish to be ungallant in my remarks, but I fear that there is a large class of young ladies who look upon this sort of furniture as 'elegant.' Now if elegance means nothing more than a milliner's idea of the beautiful, which changes every season...then no doubt, [such sofas are]...elegant indeed." [3]
Apparently Eastlake's crusade for greater austerity did not achieve much traction at Staatsburgh, where this silk confection resides.  Its is all softness, pastels and floral design evoking femininity and wealth, and suggesting (really, mandating) a household staffed by people who could coax a tea stain from fabric that cost more than they made in a year. The large pillows might look comfortable to sink into, but a lady would never have slouched in her seat.  In fact, the cushions likely would have rested on the top of the sofa or be placed on the floor for the ladies to rest their feet upon them.

Chesterfield-style sofa, 2016

It might be hard to believe that only recently has this sofa resembled the condition it had when  Mrs. Mills presided over her drawing room more than a century ago. Visitors to Staatsburgh before January of 2017 might recall their sense of shock upon seeing the sofa. Tattered and faded, one look often prompted visitors to ask their guide, “Did Mrs. Mills own cats?” A fair question, but no, Mrs. Mills did not have cats (she preferred Pomeranians).  Another culprit was responsible for the deterioration of this once-handsome sofa: time. Time – roughly one hundred and twenty years of it – saw that soot from the original coal heating system used by the Mills family, dust, sunlight, as well as uncontrolled temperatures and humidity, all had their wicked way with this piece of furniture, especially its silk cover.  How, then, do site staff, and conservators at the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites, combat time and its partners-in-crime? And how is he decision made, to conserve, restore, or simply maintain in a current state, he textiles in historic houses? What do these processes entail?

It is important for museum staff and conservators to know what materials compose historic furniture and textiles in order to conserve and restore them properly. For instance, a file is maintained for Staatsburgh's drawing room sofa. Every time the sofa is examined or researched, the information is added to the sofa’s file. The record for this sofa  goes back as far as 1974 – the year the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) accessioned it, when the mansion's contents were formally given the agency by Gladys Mills Phipps, a daughter of Ogden and Ruth Livingston Mills. The photograph of the sofa seen below was taken around the time it was accessioned, and it already shows quite a bit of deterioration.

Drawing Room Sofa, Circa 1974

In February of 1981, the sofa was examined by New York State conservators and it was recommended that it be “submitted for treatment,” meaning it required not just routine cleaning but restoration or replacement of some areas.  The silk fabric continued to deteriorate and the agency's conservators focused on locating reproduction fabric and trims that would match the original sofa, with funds provided by the site's support group, now known as the Friends of Mills at Staatsburgh.

In January 2017, the entire sofa entered the agency's furniture and textile conservation labs to be examined once more and to be fully restored.  During the 2017 examination, conservators thoroughly recorded what materials the sofa contained, and what state they were in. The frame of the sofa is made of ash wood. It also has four brass castors, brass yokes, and ceramic wheels for each of the feet.  The rest of the sofa primarily consists of various textiles.  In the thickest area of the sofa, such as the seat, there are nine layers from the frame to the surface of the sofa. The ninth layer, closest to the wood frame, was a dust cover. It is made of two different fibers – jute for the warp weave, and linen for the weft weave. This base layer is tacked down to the frame.

Close view of the sofa layers before treatement, March 2017

The eighth through the second layers alternate between layers of springs, horsehair, cotton batting, and more covers to protect and secure each layer. is a layer of horse hair. These layers were held in place by pressure from the first layer of the sofa – the silk, brocade show-cover that was buttoned deeply into them. The rest of the sofa, including the arms, back, and back cover, contained variations of these layers. There were also woven silk and cotton cords that lined the edges of the sofa and its pillows, along with a fringe around the bottom edge of the sofa. As the photograph taken by conservators before treatment began shows, much of the silk, brocade show-cover was shattered, splintered, or missing entirely.

Drawing Room sofa before treatment, March 2017

After the restoration work was complete, the sofa was returned to the site and can be seen while touring the house. Tour guides enjoy showing the "before" state via pictures, compared to the "after," restored condition...always a source of ooohs and aaahs!  Periodic examinations and cleaning of historic furniture is important for slowing down cumulative deterioration. Routinely, or as needed, textiles are vacuumed to remove dust and other particles. Done through a fiberglass screen, like the ones used in windows, museum staff carefully use hand-held vacuums on the lowest power to clean historic textiles.[4]   With preventative housekeeping and decreased light levels, it is our hope that this fabric will last throughout this century and beyond.

[1] Margaret Ponsonby, Faded and Threadbare Historic Textiles and their Role in Houses Open to the Public, (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 1.
[2] Hermann Muthieseus, The English House, quoted in, Jermey Musson, The Drawing Room: English Country House Decoration.  (Rizzoli, New York, 2014), 21.
[3] Charles Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste, quoted in Musson, 19.

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