Saturday, September 6, 2003

Queen City jewel of art, architecture repolished

It's a mess now, but Taft Museum is poised for a dramatic rebirth

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer


Taft Museum renovation
Entering the home from the cluttered driveway, carefully stepping through an inch of construction dust onto stray boards and over a tangle of equipment, the view from the first floor is dismal.

The place has been stripped down to its beams and lathing.

Cracks in the early 19th-century brick walls ooze gobs of green foam that has been blown in to keep asbestos at bay.

New doorways have been blasted between rooms.

Hallway ceilings have been ripped apart and heightened.

New sprinkler pipes look down on passers-by.

The rooms are stuffy and sweltering.

Welcome to the Taft Museum of Art at the height of a $19 million makeover. Begun in March 2002 and expected to be completed by early spring, the renovation will double the size of the museum, clean up centuries of grime and fix a few decorating disasters.

Upstairs, behemoth rubber tubes in traffic-cone orange and royal blue rumble. They block the way into most of the rooms as air is pumped in to keep the interior cool while the air conditioning is shut down.

This is critical to protecting the Robert S. Duncanson murals painted onto the plaster walls lining the foyer and long entry hall. The landscapes, considered the finest antebellum murals in the United States, are protected by steel and wood coverings (later replaced by plastic).

As a visitor wanders from room to room, dim light falls on peeling wallpaper. The fireplaces in the main parlors are ripped from their inner walls. Carpeting has been removed, light fixtures retired and drywall has risen.

Industrial fans set up by the workers help only to scatter debris piled in various rooms. In the hallways, steel-caged lights jury-rigged from the ceiling cast harsh beams on heaps of plaster and wood.

The historic Baum-Longworth-Sinton Taft house is in shambles.

Art stored or goes on loan

Built about 1820, this National Historic Landmark is known as one of the finest small art museums in America.

In November 2001, it closed its doors to the public and packed up its collection of paintings, porcelains and furniture. Some pieces went into storage while others were lent to museums around the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The backyard garden was ripped up. A parking garage (a first), gallery, performance hall and storage space were built into a new wing behind the house.

But it is the restoration of the house itself that is at the heart of the project.

Major revamping is a first

It is the first serious redo of the Pike Street house that sits elegantly behind a high iron fence on the edge of downtown.

The property, house and art collection were given to the people of Cincinnati in 1927 by its last residents, Charles Phelps Taft and his wife, Anna Sinton Taft. He was a prominent attorney and half-brother of President William H. Taft. She was the daughter of iron and real estate magnate David Sinton, who acquired the house in 1871.

Drapery makers, carpet weavers, notion makers, upholsterers and plaster restorers armed with archival materials have come under the leadership of Taft Chief Curator David Johnson. Their goal: to create a setting that will allow the Taft's collection to be shown in chronological order and that will show how art, decorative art, furniture and interior design have influenced one another.

Not just any old house

Renovating any old house is a complex task, and this one - like many others - is complicated by previous changes. The four owners of the1820s Federal-style villa each added to or altered the house in the style popular at the time. Johnson wants to stay true to each change but also wants to create rooms that reflect and complement the art.

So, he chose wall colors, window dressings, trims, upholstery and carpets to match the art being shown, even when that was in conflict with the interior design of the times. When he could not find what was needed, he had it made. In Egypt. In England. In France. In the United States.

To complement the Medieval and early Renaissance religious items in the former library, which will be open to the public for the first time, the room was designed in the Gothic Revival style. "It had to have the feel of walking into a church," says Johnson.

The carpet is an 1825 design in straw, sage, gold, coral and black with a medallion pattern. The woodwork is faux-grained to resemble limestone blocks, and the wall color is a light stone.

Johnson went to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the design of the mushroom-colored drapery, which will hang from custom mahogany poles. The mahogany tiebacks feature carved roses identical to the rose on the ivory "Virgin and Child from St. Denis" (circa 1280) that will stand in the room.

Draperies from Indian Hill

Beverly Hafemeister of Vintage Valences in Indian Hill, who maintains an archive of historical drapery design, created the window treatments for the rooms and hallways.

For the room dedicated to 17th century Dutch paintings, Johnson selected a carpet with an ebony parquet pattern to mimic the 1810 style of Dutch floors. On each side of the fireplace, Chinese porcelains ca. 1700 will be displayed, reflecting what the Dutch of the era collected.

The pale complexions in feminine portraits were the inspiration for the "ointment pink" color of the walls in the room dedicated to 18th-century English paintings.

His-and-hers parlors

There were other considerations with the extensive renovation of the home that occurred under the ownership of millionaire Nicholas Longworth during the mid-1800s. A flamboyant Rococo Revival style was used in the two main parlors. This is where Johnson spent the most money - $30,000 in drapery alone.

The carpet has an 1827 medallion design of golds, green and white, with a deep aubergine border that will be set off by moss-green walls. Two black gold-veined Egyptian marble mantel pieces in the late Federal Rococo style replace wooden mantles that Johnson says never would have been in such an important home.

The parlors are mirror images of each other. During the Federal and early Rococo revival period, it was customary among the wealthy to have two parlors: one for the men and one for the women. After dinner, each group would withdraw to its designated room for coffee, conversation or smoking.

The museum is decorating the parlors in the same pattern of carpeting, style of draperies and wallpaper borders to unite them, says Johnson. To add visual interest to the drapes, the colors are reversed in each room from green with purple to purple with green.

Modern conveniences, too

Not every change is a decorating one. To accommodate upgraded heating and cooling systems, the equipment is installed in the attic. But the pieces were too big to fit through the house's doors, so a hole was cut in the roof and the pieces were lowered in.

The sprinkler system pipes were also installed in the attic, with installers squeezing through a jumble of pipes and equipment to complete the job.

Ceiling heights were changed to accommodate the wiring and pipes being led through the attic floor into the galleries, with paths being cut through age-old joists to make room for the new system.

Daunting, delicate plaster job

One ceiling, the one in the dining room, posed its own particular problem. When the room was renovated by the Tafts in 1910, they expanded it, adding a breakfast nook and installing a beautiful ornamental plaster ceiling.

The ceiling is undergoing conservation by Cassie Myers of Myers Conservation in Washington, D.C. She says damage to the medallion and extensive repainting posed two challenges: "One is to make sure it stays in place, and the other is to reveal the details."

This is an intensive process completed in stages, explains Myers, who has worked on the U.S. Capitol, the Treasury building and Solitude, the Philadelphia home of John Penn, a governor of the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1770s.

First, they stabilize the spots where the plaster has become detached, then the ornament is attached on top.

In areas where the plaster is not well attached, a compound of whiting (calcium carbonate) and an acrylic emulsion, a kind of glue used in conservation, are applied. To protect what is original and to remove what is not she chips away - with a mallet and tiny X-Acto knife - the countless layers of paint.

Samples saved for posterity

Complicating her work: everything she does has to be able to be undone to accommodate future redos and research.

Patches of paint with every layer were saved. And samples from throughout the house were examined to determine their makeup and true color.

The elaborate dining room draperies will be peach over floral-embroidered cotton sheers lined with a royal blue tape. These choices will enhance the room's Barbizon landscapes and powder-blue Chinese porcelains.

When complete, the scenic background for the collection, as Director Philip Long puts it, will be "gloriously" set.

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