Restoration, Preservation, and Aging with Grace

As the Heurich House mansion approaches its 125th anniversary, inevitably some things in the house are beginning to show their age. While there are many different schools of thought as to what degree things in museums and historic homes should be restored or conserved, we at the Heurich House believe that it is okay if things don’t look brand new. Evidence of age throughout the house helps tell the story of what has happened here over the past 124 years.

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 A drainage backup in the Boudoir in 2004 damaged a portion of the ceiling, revealing the iron beam and concrete construction of the mansion

As you walk through the house, you may notice chips in the plaster, or damage to the ceiling of Amelia’s “Boudoir,” but rather than being signs of neglect or deterioration, these elements have been stabilized and deliberately left as is to help us tell the story of the house itself, as well as that of the family that lived in it for only 62 of its 124 years.

While we practice preventive conservation techniques (like monitoring environmental conditions, and maintaining regular maintenance routines) to help keep the house in the condition it is now, there are some instances where additional conservation or restoration is needed to help stabilize actively deteriorating elements.

Recently, we undertook one such restoration project, when we hired the internationally recognized, locally-based, Gold Leaf Studios led by William Adair, to restore the gilded address numbers over our front door.

DSC_3673While this type of restoration project is outside of our normal preservation philosophy, the numbers required attention as they were unstable and had deteriorated to the point where they had completely lost their drop shadows and large portions of the gilding from each number. What made the numbers a candidate for restoration (returning them to their original look), and not just conservation (stabilizing them in their current state), was that they had deteriorated over the years to the point that they were difficult to read from the street, hindering wayfinding for visitors.

In order to preserve the historic integrity of the existing numbers, however, the team at Gold Leaf Studios worked with us to preserve the old numbers and restore them by hand instead of the much simpler process of removing the existing numbers, and starting from scratch with a computer generated stencil. In order to retain the remaining original gilding, they painstakingly outlined the original shape of the numbers based on traces of gilding left on the window, and filled in the missing bits of gold leaf and black Japan paint on top of the existing numbers.

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Gold Leaf Studios Associate Conservator Chay Phung preparing the stencil by hand

The technique used for this kind of gilding is called églomisé, which is a process in which the gilding is applied to the reverse of the glass. After they set the stencil, defining the original outlines of each number, they cleaned the surface, prepped it with a gelatin size, and applied the new gold leaf. They then set the gold leaf with an acrylic coating and left it to dry overnight.

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Gold Leaf drying before application of the black Japan paint

Once dry, they added a layer of quick-drying black Japan paint by hand to protect the gilding, removed the stencil, and touched up any imperfections in the gilding.

While the process could have finished here, the experts from Gold Leaf Studios had found evidence of an old drop shadow that once highlighted the numbers, but had deteriorated away at a much quicker rate than the areas that had gilding.

To add the drop shadow, they created another stencil, and hand painted the shadow directly onto the glass. As the Japan paint is quick drying, the stencil needs to be removed while the paint is still wet in order to get a clean line, so it was only a matter of minutes until our numbers looked as crisp as they would have back in 1894. If you look closely, however, you can still see the outline of the original gilding, which is now protected in place by the new layer of gilding and Japan paint.

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The finished product
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