Friday, August 22, 2014

The Restoration That Didn't Happen

Despite several restoration campaigns to get the Old Senate Chamber back to its original eighteenth-century appearance, the room remains a reflection of its several centuries of history. With the excitement of the room’s earliest days, it is sometimes hard to remember that fascinating stories happened after Washington’s resignation. From the 1876-1878 desecration, to remaining evidence of some of the earliest restoration efforts in 1904-1906, the room continues to hold scars and additions from its entire life.

Most people know that the most recent major restoration of the room occurred in 1940 under architect, Laurence Hall Fowler. However, few people realize that a decade beforehand, efforts were already being made to begin restoring the room. Though the economic depression made funding the restoration unfeasible, the efforts in part resulted in the 1940 restoration, which provided some of our most valuable resources on Old Senate Chamber furnishings to this day.

Sketched floor plan for the Old Senate Chamber, 1930-1940. Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Old Senate Chamber Refurbishment Collection, MS 574, copied from the Johns Hopkins Archives.

While undertaking research for the current restoration, our team came across the Maryland Historical Society’s collection of documents relating to the movement to restore the Old Senate Chamber in the 1930s. Though the project never secured enough funding to actually carry out the restoration, they had managed to form a committee and even began publicizing some of their research. By looking at these files, we discovered that several prominent topics in our own research had appeared nearly eighty years earlier. The question of William Paca’s chair playing a role in Washington’s resignation had been closely examined. A descendant of Charles Willson Peale, the Philadelphia restoration architect Horace Wells Sellers, had been consulted, much like we would later look at his research files for evidence of the OSC and its art’s original appearance.

There were different mysteries to be solved as well. Sellers remarked in one letter, “I recall in C.W. Peale's correspondence a letter to General Mifflin written I think about the year 1784 in which he expresses the desire to paint a picture representing Washington taking leave of Congress at Annapolis. As I remember it he states that as he was then situated he could not take the time required for such a work. James Peale, as I think I mentioned when we were discussing the matter, painted a number of pictures showing the figures in small scale and I knew executed several such historical paintings.”[1] Research into this matter in the years following the resignation have led to the thought that no such sketches from either Peale exist.

Unfortunately due to lack of funds, the restoration was never carried out and apart from the files at the Maryland Historical Society, little evidence remains that the project had ever been considered. With the room still largely unfurnished by 1940, a new restoration was clearly still in order.

Enrico Liberti working on the Old Senate Chamber chairs, 1940. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 617-1.

Less than ten years later, in 1940, the room was being studied again for a new restoration. This time, the focus was on John Shaw’s 1797 furnishings. These efforts led to an exhaustive search to attempt to find surviving evidence of these Old Senate Chamber relics. Ultimately, the search was a success, and the room was filled with reproduction Shaw chairs built by Enrico Liberti. Without question, the 1940 restoration’s lasting legacy for the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property is the collection of original Old Senate Chamber furnishings.

Many pieces of the furniture had been passed down through families so long that they either weren’t known as Shaw furniture to descendants, or looked entirely different. Most remarkably, the Senate President’s desk had been converted into a coffee table. When the Old Senate Chamber reopened with the reproduction furniture, some members of the public recognized the pieces and helped to bring several more pieces of the original Shaw furniture out of the woodwork. A select few were even donated to the state's art collection, pieces of which will be on display in the Old Senate Chamber’s exhibit. If it were not for the 1940 restoration, much of our collection of Shaw furnishings would not exist.

Sadly, during World War II, the windows and doors were shut up, and the Old Senate Chamber was closed for the duration of the war. When the room was finally reopened, the damage had already been done; the seat coverings were infested with moths.[2]

The Old Senate Chamber after the 1940 restoration, December 1948. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 4082-1-81.

It is perhaps surprising that the most recent restoration campaigns are the ones that we know the least about. The lack of documentation for an event so recent just goes to prove that all events will ultimately be lost to memory unless they are recorded. Documents and images that may not seem important now could become consequential in determining what decisions were made in the future, and why they were made. Without institutions like the Maryland State Archives and the Maryland Historical Society, these documents would be lost or destroyed, forcing future generations to attempt to duplicate our research, rather than building on it.

[1] Horace Wells Sellers to John Hall Pleasants, 22 May 1931. Peale-Sellers Papers, American Philosophical Society.
[2] Johns Hopkins University Archives, Laurence H. Fowler Collection, MS 413 Series 7 Box 43. See also Board of Public Works (Minutes) MSA SM 108-3, M 386, p.289.

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