All houses benefit from a little decor updating from time time, including historic house museums. To set the stage: more than ten years ago the wood shake roof on the Storrs House Museum was failing. And by failing, I mean leaking, which is obviously problematic. Then-President, Mike Gelinas, got to work writing a CPC grant for a new roof, and the roof was replaced. But the damage was done—the southwest bedchamber had ugly water stains on the ceiling and down the walls. Plaster repair and new wallpaper would eventually have to be done. The ambitious plan was multi-faceted: get paint analysis done on the woodwork, remove the old wallpaper, research period reproduction wallpapers, hire someone to install the wallpaper after plaster repair and painting was complete. To round out the project, we would commission a period-appropriate floor covering and window treatments. As you can imagine, most of this is expensive to accomplish (other than the volunteer labor in wallpaper removal and painting.)
Having some experience with plaster repair and reproduction textiles and wallcoverings from work on our own historic home, we had an idea of what to do. Some of you may recognize the feeling of “being paralyzed by the possibilities,” where it is difficult to take any steps because there are too many options to consider. So the years went by, we continued to explain to visitors that the stains were old, the roof was good, and that we intended to do something, someday…
Over the holidays, we decided to take action—maybe not the full scope of the wish list, but a first step. We moved out furniture and objects that could be moved and covered the remaining items. An initial team of two volunteers, then two more, stripped the wallpaper. This was accomplished over just three days, only occasionally slowed by the tantalizing discoveries of small pieces of earlier wallpapers. The plaster walls thus exposed were unpainted, indicating that they had always been papered. This was common in the 18th and 19th centuries—wallpaper was readily available.
I should explain that the wallpaper on the walls was a familiar pattern to us from previous explorations into wallpaper research. It is a pattern called “Stencil Square,” which was originally made in the 1820s and was revived in the 20th century. The original colorway (the term for the color palette found in surviving samples) was a dark blue and gray—the wallpaper in our room was a more subtle white and gold. We suspected that this was a mid-20th century paper because of the colors, but also because of the type of paper. Old wallpapers were block printed on rectangular sheets of paper, and later roller printing and long sheets were used. Our guess was confirmed when we found a small area of wallpaper that hadn’t been trimmed along the selvedge (in the past, you had to trim the extra selvedge before applying the paper to the walls). This little half-inch wide strip revealed “Katzenbach and Warren” and the name “Stencil Square.” Bingo! This company made a collection of reproduction wallpapers for Colonial Williamsburg in the 1950s. With that date in mind, I went to the archives to review the minutes from the society from around that time. In October of 1955 I found the notation “papered the Abigail Davenport Room, second floor, SW” and later, “paint, repair fireplace, and paper.”
Next steps include plaster repair, which, in spite of the aforementioned water damage, was in remarkably good shape. Early plaster was made up of local sand, lime, and hair. The hair serves as a binder—think re-bar in concrete. Contrary to legend, it was not typically horsehair. We learned from past repairs on our own house that the hair in old plaster in Longmeadow contained a soft, reddish hair. Horsehair proved too stiff—it poked out of the plaster when applied to the walls. A quick trip to Old Sturbridge Village provided the answer yet again (we are continually impressed by the level of knowledge of the interpreters at OSV). It was oxen hair! They generously gave us a bagful of the soft, red hair, which worked perfectly. The hair in the plaster at the Storrs House Museum appears to be similar—anyone have some oxen who need to be brushed?
While we work on making the necessary preparations to the walls, we are also working on what period we will interpret. We could use the original build date of the house, the 1830’s date of the furniture in the room, the 1850s when a son of Richard Salter Storrs comes back to Longmeadow to live in his childhood home, or perhaps when Sarah Storrs, the last Storrs to live in the house, takes over ownership of the house after her brother’s passing in 1884. The 1880s are a treasure-trove of William and Morris-type naturalistic wallpapers, and are still quite available today. Stop by to check on our progress!
-Contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member
Wallpapers for Historic Buildings by Richard C. Nylander,
Wallpaper in America by Catherine Lynn
Wallpaper in New England by Richard C. Nylander, Elizabeth Redmond, and Penny J. Sander
Longmeadow Historical Society Meeting Minutes