A room that was packed away for 80 years is being put back together. In 2012, the wood-panelled parlour, created around 1750 in a house in Gilead, Connecticut, will be shown to the public for the first time when the Yale University Art Gallery opens its newly reinstalled American decorative arts collection. The room, which is undergoing conservation, is considered a distinguished example of the colonial style known as Connecticut River Valley baroque, an elaborate form of carving in which exaggerated elements from classical architecture are combined with fantastical floral decorations.
The room was purchased by Yale in 1930 with funds provided by Francis Garvan, who also donated his collection of colonial and federal American art. Yale planned to install the room immediately, but the expected space did not materialise and so the pieces were put into storage. The room is to contain only sparse furnishings, and will stand alone “as an object unto itself”, which viewers can walk through to experience the woodwork, said Patricia Kane, curator of American decorative arts.
Before being moved to the museum, more than 150 pieces were treated in a non-oxygen environment to destroy any potentially harmful organisms, such as larvae or insects. The wood was then cleaned with vacuuming, scraping and solvents. Paint that could not be stabilised was removed, and paint losses were toned to match the off-white colour that the room had in the 1930s, by which time, Yale’s paint study showed, more than eight coats of roughly similar off-white paint had been applied. The cleaned floor and walls were then reassembled. Plasters will complete the walls and ceiling once the room is moved to the new gallery.
Despite decades in storage, “it all went together surprisingly easily,” because there was “a very good road map to put it all back together,” says Kane. J. Frederick Kelly, a New Haven architect who was involved in the room’s 1930 preservation and removal, numbered each piece before disassembly, and drew wall elevations, flagging each section with a matching number.
A key feature of the room, and the only known example of its kind, is a fantastical Connecticut Valley vine with fruits and flowers, carved on the casing which housed the room’s supporting “summer beam”. The room also features a fireplace overmantle with baroque-style panels, pilasters with foliage capitals, and a leaf-carved cupboard, which was originally painted a brilliant vermilion red-orange.
Conservators are using minimally invasive techniques such as securing the interior to its new housing with plates attached to the back of the woodwork; the plates are then fastened to a external stud frame. “We’re not putting any new holes into the front of the wood,” said Kane.
Emily Orr, a fellow in the decorative arts department, notes a few imperfections in the room, including a sagging beam over the mantle, smoke residue where candles may have marred the wall, and a not-quite-rectangular door frame, which “in no way is straight”. She added that Yale “wanted the room to look old. It doesn’t have that high gloss finish that some period rooms are given.”