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How far a master paperhanger will go to save historic wallpaper

The hand-painted sky’s the limit

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Last week, we looked at historic wallpapers, from woodblock-printed scenes by Zuber to hand-crafted Chinese designs. What we love most about these works of art is that they are not just found in museums and on the pages of shelter magazines. Many people today live with these beautiful wallpapers in their homes, and plenty of houses currently on the market retain these high-quality papers.

When considering older wallpaper, the question of preservation and restoration inevitably arises. What happens if you’re lucky enough to come across a house with incredible wallpaper, only to discover a patch of damage or discoloration? To find out, we spoke to Jim Yates, master paperhanger and owner of Historic Wallpaper Specialties.

Now, we should mention that the techniques Yates uses to repair damaged scenic wallpaper are more creative rather than historically sound—and Yates is the first to admit that. "House museums will hire a paper conservator," says Yates. "I deal with private residences. With many private residences, the emphasis is mainly on how aesthetically pleasing the wallpaper is rather than having it be so historically sound. It doesn’t matter how the job gets done—it just matters that the outcome looks good."


A photo posted by LEGE ALTO (@legealto) on

While Yates specializes in historic wallpaper installations (more on that in a bit), he has no shortage of stories about how he has saved Zuber scenics from destruction. The most common type of damage he sees? Water damage. "Suppose there’s a hurricane that comes through and leaves a trail of water, dirt, and rust along a section of a scenic Zuber print—we get that a lot," says Yates. "What I tell my clients is that we can make it look better. Not perfect! But better."

The challenge lies in matching the delicately applied distemper paint used on the Zuber paper, which has naturally aged and faded over the years, to a newly applied patch of paint. "You have to deal with cleaning the discolored patch, sealing it against future stains, and then you have to try to blend the repair into the existing wallpaper," says Yates. "It’s virtually impossible."

One remarkable challenge he faced was the restoration of a Zuber scenic that had been bleached by chlorine gasses released from an indoor pool elsewhere in the house. Yates says that his repair included taking the paper off the wall, shearing off the damaged area with the sky and completely repainting the scene.

"We painted and installed an entirely new sky. Then, we overlaid what we could save from the Zuber scenic," says Yates. "We tipped the original print in with some putty and smoothed and sanded it to blend the repair in. I have really never heard about anybody else taking such radical measures to save a scenic wallpaper. It was crazy—and it will never happen again. Probably."

When we asked him how he came up with such an inventive solution to a unique situation, he calmly says: "When you find yourself in a situation like this, you have to ask yourself: What does it take to give my clients something they can use? I just do what I can do to work for my clients. "

We also asked him what could be done to repair the Zuber wallpaper in a house for sale in Natchez, Mississippi, which suffers from discolored seams.

Yates explains that the discoloration probably formed after the seams of the wallpaper loosened over time, only to have somebody haphazardly glue them down. He says that when wallpaper paste comes into direct contact with high-quality wallpaper, the paste causes the paper to discolor.

"I would probably lift the seams up and use an archival adhesive," says Yates. "Then I would get a very good artist to blend over the seams to make the discoloration look better. Not perfect. It won’t ever be perfect. But better."

As Yates alluded to, the way that these wallpapers are installed has a significant impact on their longevity. When executing an installation in a historic house—he recently installed wallpaper at Mount Vernon and has also been tapped for a project at Monticello—the process is not as simple as pasting paper to a wall.

He first primes the wall with paste and lets that dry overnight. Then, he pastes a layer of muslin fabric to the wall. The fabric helps protect the wallpaper from the often plaster walls, which may crack over time. A day later, a layer of acid-free liner is installed. After the liner dries completely, the wallpaper is hung. He explains, "The wall covering becomes a laminate of three elements—and that’s how it comes off, if it’s ever removed."

In fact, that’s one of the most compelling characteristics of high-quality scenic wallpaper: They can be removed, transported, and completely reinstalled in a new location. In fact, looking for scenic wallpaper on the second-hand market is one of our favorite tips for getting a piece of panoramic paper in your life. More on which dealers and retailers to buy from—including a few expert decorating tips from some of our favorite interior designers—coming next week.