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How historic rooms get moved and reused

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Period dramas, meet period rooms

The Rotherwas Room at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. The room dates to 1611.
Courtesy of Creative Commons.

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.

A few months ago, while visiting David Adler’s Crane Estate on the north shore of Massachusetts, we were struck with a bit of curiosity. The beautiful wood paneling in the library wasn’t originally made for the house. It was made for—and originally installed in—a country house in England. When the country house was demolished, the carvings were saved and ultimately installed in this house.

Not too long afterwards, we became aware of a hotel in England—the White Swan—that features a dining room full of Edwardian woodwork originally installed in the first-class lounge on the RMS Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship.

We knew that houses can be moved—but rooms?

“The phenomenon for decorating with period rooms is parallel to the rise of furnishing with antiques,” says Jared Goss, a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Goss explains that during the Industrial Revolution, as new objects became cheaper and more attainable for the middle class, the upper classes started to value the uniqueness of antiques, launching a borderline obsession with the past.

Feeding this mania were a host of dealers, who specialized in architectural salvage. “Whether their clients were interested in American rooms because they collected Americana or European rooms because they wanted the veneer of European sophistication, there have always been dealers that specialized in selling period rooms,” says Goss.

But—architecture isn’t generally thought of as portable. How is it possible for a single room to be broken down and then reassembled in an entirely new building?

“Paneling is just a skin that fits onto the architectural structure of the building, not usually a fundamental part of the building” adds Goss. “It’s like a giant 3D puzzle, and if it can be put together, it can be taken apart.”

The fireplace wall of the library in David Adler’s Crane Estate.
Photo by Robert Khederian

In 2007, Goss oversaw the installation of the Wisteria Dining Room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an Art Nouveau period room that’s almost entirely intact, down to its carpet. Even the lighting in the room was purposefully made soft and dim for maximum accuracy.

In a museum context, authenticity is, unsurprisingly, very important. A room will not be installed until the appropriate amount of floorspace becomes available. That Wisteria Dining Room, for example, sat in storage from the 1960s—when it entered the museum’s collection—right up until 2007, when it was installed.

Things aren’t so regimented when it comes to fitting period rooms into private residences. “We had a project where somebody had purchased an English Georgian library,” says architect Peter Pennoyer. “The room was incomplete, and it had various architectural issues. We were able to copy the parts that were missing, clean everything, and reinstall it so that it was seamless.”

The French knew how to make a dining room #wisteriadiningroom

A photo posted by Daniel Hyszczak (@hyszczak10) on

Pennoyer goes on to say that the process of restoring the paneling has reflexive benefits: “It’s a very rewarding exercise as an architect, because when you have to study it well enough to patch it back together, you’re really learning a lot about what the paneling is like. You’re getting into the mind of the designer.”

There are few kinds of paneling that you’ll typically come across. One of the most common is original wood, which, while harder to match, “can be blended in with a really good finisher.” You can even find veneers specially made from old wood. Then there’s a material called “composition,” which is made of glue and sawdust and used for fine detail work and molding. The use of composition didn’t seem entirely different from that of plaster molding.

Of course, one of the main challenges that comes with fitting a room designed for one space into an entirely different space is figuring out how to solve for windows and doors that may not entirely align.

Pennoyer’s solution is to work methodically. “You diagrammatically lay out what you have and what the walls look like. Work from what you know you can use towards what you know is missing. At the end of the day, you don’t want people to think that you touched anything.”

Granted, sometimes that means altering the original layout of the period room a bit. But the end point is always to celebrate the past, and keep it alive, even if that means infusing your own flair onto the space. “At home, you might cut down the paneling or add. You need to play some tricks to get everything to fit properly.” says Goss. “It may not be as accurate as a museum, but in a private house? Why not! Live the way you want to!”