Of course, I am always on the look out for historical sites that hold great examples of sound and solid plastering of days gone by. I often speak of wood lath and full coat plaster as the backbone of America-what has been surrounding and supporting everyday life for years and years-what gives a home its distinctive feel and character. What I found at Hildene is some of that plaster and the human side of things, the story of a well-known family.
THE VERMONT-ILLINOIS CONNECTIONCurrently, I live about an hour from Springfield, Ill. The big buzz this summer all over the state was about the opening of the new Lincoln Museum. Why I mention this is because on a rainy Saturday afternoon my wife and I drove down a long winding road that led to a historic home, an estate named Hildene. Robert Todd Lincoln was the only child of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln who survived to maturity. He is the one who built this impressive home. Robert visited Manchester for the first time in 1863 with his mother and his brother Tad. He loved the beauty of Vermont so much that 40 years later (in 1903), he returned to purchase about 500 acres of land to build his ancestral home. Abraham Lincoln's descendants lived until 1975 in this 24-room Georgian Revival mansion. In 1978, Friends of Hildene, a non-profit group, raised money and began restoring this beautiful home.
William Burke is a great source of information on this home and we spent the next two hours with him learning the stories that the house contained. I also was able to call and talk with Seth Bongartz, executive director of this group (Brian Knight is the curator/caretaker).
In front of the house, one can get a good view of the house as it looks today. Even from the outside, you can immediately tell that this is a well-built, rock-solid home. It's stately and yet very inviting in its appearance. Again, my reasons for visiting this home were quite different than most who have visited as William soon found out. He was quite nice in sharing the stories of the family and the history of who lived there. And that was all find and good but I was mainly here to check out the plaster.
When you first come in the front door you are greeted by some ornate plaster work right. This is right at the base of the staircase. What strikes me most often in historic homes is the amount of detail and quality that was built in, even for the simplest of areas. So often I see the insides of "big boxes"-homes that are filled with big open spaces and little in the way of trim or any extras.
That's what's especially refreshing in a visit to a house like this. Time and material were two things that were given in a very generous way and it shows around every corner.
In 2004, a permanent collection of President Lincoln artifacts was put on display throughout the home. These include a "stovepipe" hat that Lincoln wore. I found out that there were seven of these that were made (of beaver skin) and that only three of these exist today. Of more interest to me though was what was covering the walls-the plastered walls. In the dining room, you'll see some very neat wallpapering that was put on. It was put on in three layers and the effect was really neat. And most impressive was that it has stayed in great condition over all these years, with no fading and thankfully no staining anywhere.
Moving on to one of the bedrooms on the first floor, you'll notice more wallpaper on the walls. I'm going to make another mention of this room and the condition of the plaster in a minute. In the staircase. Half way up, at the landing, is what's called an Acolian Pipe Organ. This was installed in 1908 and has 1,000 pipes. It was a gift from Robert to his wife Mary. It is the oldest residential pipe organ and is still in working order. Two hundred and forty two rolls are stored with it and it is played every day. While we were there, they played "My Old Kentucky Home," by Steven Foster and I must say you could hear it-and feel it-in every part of the house. Hearing that music was the perfect way to end our tour. More pictures and information on this home can be found at www.hildene.org.
LESSONS LEARNEDAs I said earlier, I walk into any home with an eye on the plaster. I not only want to know what went into the house but also questions regarding what happens when maintenance (repair work) needs to be done.
I was not able to get a lot of information on who originally did the plastering. In many homes, this is possible to obtain and I think it adds a lot to know who was in there first.
It's not as critical of course, historically speaking, when a piece of plaster comes loose on the ceiling. But when it affects this kind of area, I was curious on how this type of thing was handled. Actually, I was out after more than that. I wanted to know how the people who do the plaster repair are chosen. My answers came from Mr. Bongartz.
He mentioned that since his becoming executive director, no plaster repair had been done. But if they were to be done, the decision making would be made by him. He also added that he would make such decisions after talking things over with the curator. A curator would advise him as to the best way, which is the most historically accurate, to do the repairs or restoration. I then asked him if those chosen to do the work are from in town or elsewhere. He said the main concern they have is in getting the best job done possible. Local contractors would have the advantage simply because their reputation would be known more readily. But this did not rule out contractors who were from other areas and who came highly recommended.
I bring this up because I get a tremendous amount of e-mails from plasterers who have a lot of down time. They are looking around for work. They are in rural areas or areas that they feel don't have many sources for keeping busy. My advice is to expand out. To think about the surrounding areas and the historic sites that may be in their backyards. To overcome the disadvantage of being an outsider or from another area, it's vital to even the playing field. One way I recommend is to make a record of your work. Take progress shots.
Keep these in an album. Take digital pictures that you can e-mail. Then do your homework. As I did with Hildene, find out who the decision makers are. I would say that executive directors and curators are the important people to get in with. Ads in a paper and expensive flyers are great but taking these people out to lunch can be the best investment in the long run. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Show them your work. Most historical groups are networked and connected with other groups. This is the kind of seed planting that will pay big dividends when the time comes for work to be done. So when the time comes for the repairs to be done, your name is the first on their list to call.
This month's winner of the Plaster Man/Walls & Ceilings T-shirt is Wayne Swasey, of Stafford, Vt. Congrats Wayne! Keep your letters coming my way: e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or in care of this magazine. Until next time, Plaster On!