CONSERVATION OF LEATHER WALL HANGINGS IN THE JAMES J. HILL MANSION
1 CONSERVATION OF LEATHER WALL HANGINGS IN THE JAMES J. HILL MANSION
JAMES J. HILL began his career in transportation in 1856 at the age of seventeen as a clerk on the St. Paul levee. After a twenty-year apprenticeship in the freight business during which he had amassed a small fortune and a wealth of information, he and a few others acquired an almost bankrupt St. Paul & Pacific Railroad which in 1890 was renamed The Great Northern.
He built his Great Northern as an end in itself. His railroad had the flattest grades, the straightest track and the lowest rates. The locomotives were the most powerful, the trains the longest. In his mind The Great Northern was an immortal work. “When we are all dead and gone,” he said, “the sun will still shine, the rain will still fall and this railroad will run as usual.”
James J. Hill died in his St. Paul mansion on May 29, 1916.
The mansion, located on St. Paul's prestigious Summit Avenue, was completed in 1891 at the cost of more than $900,000. The Boston firm of Peabody, Stearns, and Farber was engaged and subsequently was dismissed when it ignored Hill's orders to the stone cutters. Hill was a dominant force in the building of the house, overseeing its planning and construction and furnishing it as if it were a new extension to his railroad.
The mansion's dimensions are: 63,000 sq. ft. of living space that include 32 rooms, 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces and a 100-foot entrance hall. After his death in 1916, his wife Mary maintained the mansion until her death five years later. In 1925, it was presented to the St. Paul Catholic Archdioces which occupied the property until 1978 when it was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society.
The dining room is half paneled in mahogany with a built-in buffet and corner cabinets. The upper half is decorated with embossed leather (possibly by a mechanical process) which had been colored with gold, red and blue. It was manufactured by a New York firm of leather embossers and workers in gold, Charles R. Yandall & Co., Fifth Avenue, New York, at the cost of $21 per yard.
The original method for mounting the leathers to the walls was: first, slats had been nailed to the wall corresponding to the size of each piece of leather. Second, burlap was stretched and tacked to the slats leaving no area of wall exposed. Third, the leather was tacked over this and finally finished with moulding around the edges.
Naturally, due to the constant changes in climate within the house over the years, the leathers had become dry and brittle. They had ripped in places. There were a number of losses due to the pull of the weight of the material, and a certain amount of distortion had taken place.
Several attempts had been made to repair them by gluing burlap to areas on the reverse. Adhesive tape also had been used to support the weight of the leather where it had broken away from the top. Upholstery tacks had been used at random all over the leather to help as a support. Moulding had been added later where the vertical joins had broken and parted. Each panel was heavily coated with years of dust and grime.
The removal of each of the panels was relatively simple. First, all the tacks and upholstery pins were removed along the bottom and the sides and those that had been added at random. Foam core was held against the surface of the leather while removing the tacks from the top edge. The leather was held to the foam core, the panels were gradually lowered to a flat surface. The panels were transported to the laboratory for treatment.
The surface of the leathers was gently brushed in order to remove loose dirt and grime. The front surfaces were washed with a 2% solution of vulpex liquid soap in warm water. The residue was swabbed off. The material which was decided to be used as a support was “Tetco,” a polyester monofillament silk-screen fabric. This was sprayed with several applications of PVA AYAA/AYAC. Each leather was to be mounted onto an aluminum honey-comb core panel with the polyester between the leather and the panel.
To prepare the panel, Hexcel aluminum honeycomb was sandwiched between 1 mm gauge aluminum sheets. The adhesive was a Scotch-weld Epoxy 2158 A & B with a work life of 1-1/2 hours. This was applied by hand and evened out with scrapers or trowels on the top and bottom sheets and the honey-comb was then placed between them. They were weighted and left to set for a couple of days. The fabric backing was applied to the leather and the aluminum sheet by using the vacuum hot table. The backing attached itself to the reverse of the leather and to the aluminum sheet.
The losses were filled using new leather, fixed into place by its attachment to the mounting panels, and the design was matched by tooling and coloring to match the original pattern.
The panels were re-attached to the walls in the dining room with 2-1/2″ screws into the original plugs which had been refitted. The original moulding was replaced along the top and new moulding was used for the bottom. The upright moulding, which had been found between each section of leather but which was not original to the room's decoration, was not replaced.
The weight of the largest panel of approximately 8 feet by 54 inches was about 50 pounds.