WAACNewsletter
Volume 9, Number 2, May 1987, pp.2-5

Renovation of the Huntington Art Gallery Following the 1985 Fire

by Carol Young Verheyen

This article presents a general overview of the renovation problems and resulting plans for a long term renovation project which followed the 1985 fire at the Huntington Art Gallery. It is not intended to be a technical description of conservation materials and processes.

At about midnight October 17, 1985 a fire developed in the elevator of the Huntington Art Gallery. Heat and flames forced the elevator doors open, shot directly across a twelve foot hallway and destroyed the full length portrait by Joshua Reynolds of MRS. EDWIN LASCELLES. Two English Chippendale upholstered chairs, a marble topped table and a bronze sculpture which were located below the painting were also fire damaged. Fortunately these were the only objects damaged by the flames before the fire department was able to extinguish the fire.

Still, fire damage was only part of the problem. The rest of the gallery, both downstairs and upstairs, was filled with smoke. Ambient humidity, combined with the smoke and heat, caused soot to coat and streak every exposed surface.

The next morning Huntington curator Robert Wark contacted Glen Cass, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology, to analyze the composition of the sooty material. The Huntington was concerned that the chemical make-up of the soot would be complex because the elevator car which burned contained plastic, wood and metal. Cal Tech's analysis revealed that the soot contained about 50% elemental carbon particles which do not dissolve, and about 50% organic carbon which is similar to a lubricating grease.

The Huntington staff also contacted painting, furniture, object and textile conservators. Barbara Roberts, Jerry Podany and Jim Greaves did sample testing to determine which solvents would remove the soot from different types of objects. Jeanne Brako, Catherine McLean and Jane Hutchins advised the gallery about options for treating the textiles.

Because the interior of the building and all of its contents required treatment to remove a pervasive layer of soot, a giant house cleaning was in order. William Ginell, at the Getty Analytical Lab, artificially aged a sample of the sooty material and concluded that although the objects were not in immediate danger, it was possible that within six months the greasy component of the soot could become more difficult to remove.

Within one week of the fire, the gallery, with assistance from Barbara Roberts, Jerry Podany and Linda Strauss, began to assemble supplies and record proposed methods for treating the works. A call for help was sent out to the Huntington's volunteer docents and within ten days a team of fifteen volunteers, four staff members (Robert Wark, Shelley Bennett, Susan Danly and Carol Young Verheyen), six conservators from the Getty (Barbara Roberts, Linda Strauss, Jerry Podany, William Ginell, Maya Barov and Mark Kotansky) was formed and had begun to clean objects in place in the gallery. A photo identification sheet was kept with each object to document treatment received and to record who had performed the treatment.

After having received instruction from consulting conservators on cleaning technique, the team set about the task of cleaning wood furniture using cotton swabs or balls wetted with mineral spirits. Diapers purchased second hand from a diaper supply company were then used for gentle buffing. Diapers proved a good substitute for cloth rags. Great care was taken not to touch wooden surfaces when gilt bronze mounts on some of the furniture were cleaned with ethyl alcohol. About twenty-five marble table tops and marble and tile fireplaces were also treated.

Under Billie Milam's direction, the volunteer and staff team cleaned bronzes with cotton swabs using a mild soap and distilled water solution. Objects were buffed dry with diapers.

Paintings were the first objects removed from the galleries and placed in storage areas where they could be unframed. Jim Greaves cleaned the paintings using mild solvents which removed the soot without affecting the varnish layer. Gilded frames were cleaned by volunteers trained by Barbara Roberts. Mineral spirits were used on the majority of frames which were water gilded.

During the early stages of the renovation project which was to take one year, all furniture and objects, cleaned or uncleaned were removed from the galleries. Approximately 130 paintings, 120 pieces of English and French furniture, 140 pieces of crystal and porcelain, 400 silver objects, 12 clocks, 60 marble and bronze sculptures, as well as a variety of vases and several candelabra made of gilt bronze in combination with ceramic or stone were involved. The room least affected by smoke damage was the Main Gallery. Smaller objects such as ceramics, silver, small bronzes and clocks were moved there and stored in padded boxes before cleaning. Most of the sculpture was moved to the Main Gallery and cleaned there, because of the difficulty of moving it elsewhere for treatment. Most upholstered furniture was stored there until poulticing treatment was done to the objects on the loggia. The well known English portraits, Pinkie and The Blue Boy did not require immediate treatment and were displayed for public viewing in a gallery at the library building, while the Main Gallery was closed.

The gallery building, Henry E. Huntington's former residence, required extensive renovation. In the hallway where the fire occurred, many decorative plaster moldings had fallen from the ceiling, exposing the bare cast concrete. Molds were taken from extant plaster sections and recast moldings were adhered to about half of the 130 foot hall. Every room was deodorized, washed and repainted. Wood paneled rooms were thoroughly cleaned.

Carpets, wall tapestries and the fabric on upholstered furniture proved to be the project's biggest dilemma because textiles are so porous. On Catherine McLean's advice, textiles were vacuumed in an up and down motion while holding the soft brush attachment of the vacuum just a finger's width above the surface of the object. This procedure removed much of the visible particulate carbon matter. However, in order to devise a treatment method to remove the greasy organic carbon, the gallery's modern draperies which went through the fire were used for further testing.

Stan Derelian collaborated on this problem with William Ginell. They determined that the use of a solvent activated poultice would be the safest and least problematic way to clean the greasy carbon. Alternate treatment procedures involved washing affected objects with water. The handling of large carpets (one is 12 by 24 feet) and other problems related to washing; or the risk taken by de-upholstering furniture covered with older fabrics made this alternative problematic.

Stan gave a training session using an oriental carpet and a French Savonnerie carpet, both of which had gone through the fire. Treatment using a rice hull ash poultice and a type of Freon solvent proved successful. The ingredients are mixed and spread on the textile which is covered with plastic and left for 45 minutes to one hour. The plastic is removed, the poultice is permitted to air dry and is then vacuumed off the textile.

The chair upholsteries, from silk brocade to Louis XVI tapestry to 18th century English needlepoint, were all treated in a similar manner. Inventive methods were developed for keeping the poultice on horizontal and vertical sides while it acted on the fabric.

The five French wall tapestries designed by Boucher in the 18th century, were more fragile due to their high silk content. They were too fragile to poultice and vacuum, so they were unsnapped from their frames, Stan removed the snaps from their modern borders, and they were then transported to Stan's studio for washing and repair. Stan has since woven new borders and re-hung two of the tapestries. Attached by Velcro along the top and anchored in several places on the sides, they are free hanging. The gilt wood frames used for gallery display have been altered to accommodate this new method of installation.

An art reference library is also housed in the Huntington gallery building. On examination a fine layer of soot was discovered on the exposed tops and spines of the books. Another volunteer group, supervised by Diana Wilson, the art librarian, and staff conservators, Ronald Tank, Griselda Warr and Jim Corwin, vacuumed and wiped clean each book in the library. Books in the Large Library were cleaned in a similar fashion.

Several decorative art conservators, including Barbara Roberts and Linda Strauss, cleaned intricate objects such as clocks, candelabra and porcelain objects which had bronze gilt mounts. The parts of these objects are like puzzle pieces and are held together with screws and pins. They were disassembled, each part cleaned with an appropriate solvent, and reassembled, with beautiful results.

Because the porosity and surfaces of each sculpture varied, each sculpture was treated individually. Billie Milam and Suzanne Gray cleaned the collection of Renaissance bronzes. Teresa Longyear employed a variety of solutions to clean the marbles. She found that the amount of soot which coated and streaked the marbles varied quite a bit. Teresa also cleaned several "biscuit de Sevres" figures, which were mounted on clock cases, as well as the miniature painting frames.

The ceramics, such as the collection of English Chelsea porcelain figures, were washed in a soap and water solution, and then dried with pressurized air. Because of their fragility, the ceramics were most often cleaned by decorative art conservators.

Silver and glass objects were washed in a similar soap and water solution by volunteers supervised by conservators. Silver was often rinsed with ethyl alcohol for faster drying so that no moisture would be trapped in the crevices. After treatment, ceramics, silver and glass were selectively wrapped in acid-free tissue and boxed for storage with photo identification sheets attached to the top of each box.

The project to renovate the gallery building and to conserve the objects displayed in it, began in October 1985 and continued sporadically until the summer of 1986. About 45 volunteers have been involved, and 6 outside conservators spent various amounts of their time on this project. Carol Young Verheyen, the Huntington's preparator/conservator, Shelley Bennett and Robert Wark, two of the Huntington's curators, devoted a majority of their time during that year to fire clean-up projects.

The gallery has had a few modifications along with the renovation project. The Main Gallery has a new fabric wall covering which has a soft golden hue and a new glass skylight with an ultraviolet filter. The Dining Room was also painted with a new color scheme. All other areas were painted the colors they were before the fire. The elevator has been replaced. A new main stairway carpet was installed. The downstairs chandeliers were regilded and all other metal fixtures were thoroughly cleaned. All draperies required alterations including re-hemming, adjusting linings and re-sewing trim.

Display case backing panels have been recovered with new silk and glass shelves are being replaced with Plexiglas for safer installation of silver, ceramics and glass objects.

During the final phase of the project The Blue Boy and Pinkie along with several other paintings, were deinstalled for treatment. Volunteers worked on frames in the recently renovated Main Gallery. The English portraits were cleaned and reframed by Jim Greaves and Camilla van Vooren.

The moving company, which had previously moved everything into storage, returned to rehang the large paintings, and move the furniture in place in a systematic reinstallation of the renovated gallery. The Huntington took this opportunity to improve its earthquake standards and all objects were installed using secure mounting methods.

Many talented professionals assisted in the reinstallation. The mount makers fabricated Plexiglas easels for the smallest objects and miniature paintings. Larger objects with more complex shapes were more of a challenge to secure to the new Plexiglas shelves. Deborah Silguero and David Moreno are two preparators who worked almost full-time on installation projects. They have designed and fabricated a large variety of mounts. For example, flexible silicone rubber was molded to contour the hollows in the base of English Chelsea porcelain figure groups. The silicone was attached to a screw and plexiglass rod. As the mount is tightened to the shelf, the silicone is squeezed outward to grip the hole in the porcelain and hold it securely. Molded silicone has been tested for its chemical stability in contact with ceramic objects.

Armatures of plexiglass mounted to shelves hold ceramics, such as Chelsea vases, which have less complex surfaces. Some of these are top heavy or weighty, so they are secured to the armature at certain locations with plastic covered steel wire. For ceramic vases with openwork areas, the preparators made interior Plexiglas rods with attached Ethafoam pieces to secure the lids to the vases.

Clock works were all serviced and repaired before being reinstalled into their cases. The preparators made a brass mount for one French 18th century clock case. The mount fits onto a hollow base to prevent the case from sliding and is anchored to the back of a marble topped table. The clock can simply be lifted off the mount for repair work. The small urn shaped objects called "cassolettes" which are on either side of the clock, sit on "Sorbothane", an inert rubber which prevents skidding and absorbs shock from movement. Brass plates and screws were specially adapted to anchor some of the top heavy objects which sit on mantels.

Bronzes vary in shape and their centers of gravity differ; so their reinstallation was fairly complex. For example, the pedestal of a bust of Henry E. Huntington by Paul Troubetskoy was altered to accept an expansion mount designed to fit into the cavity of the bust. A steel rod topped with a piece of Ethafoam and secured to a plexiglass base plate, all fit securely into the bronze as it is tightened in the pedestal. The pedestal then is inconspicuously fastened to the wall in several places using flush mount or chamber mount hardware. Scott Reuter secured many of the pedestals with these new mounts.

Other bronzes on table tops are custom fitted with steel plates which screw onto the sculpture base and are lined with a silicone sheet. The mount is then anchored to the back of the wooden or marble topped table.

An artist named Jamie Blair camouflaged the steel straps with a marbleizing painting technique.

Several bottom heavy Italian bronzes of reclining river gods were specially fitted with Plexiglas to the exact contour of the base. The plastic was weighted with a brass framework and lined with silicone. The object would be expected then to shift only minimally during an earthquake.

The curators decided to secure the English marble busts in the gallery by drilling a hole at the base which would accept a 2" pin which is anchored to the pedestal base. It was determined that this procedure was necessary for earthquake safety. A few had previously been drilled. Conservation technician, James Stahl, brought the Getty Museum's specialized drill for marble to do this job. Soft stone sculpture and terracotta figures which could not be drilled because of their fragility, were custom fitted with steel and brass armatures for secure installation.

We have learned a lot during the course of the year's unexpected renovation. The building and artworks have all received cleaning and care within a relatively short period of time. We have been fortunate, despite the initial loss of the Reynolds painting. The Huntington gallery re-opened in late September 1986 and the reinstallation of all objects with earthquake provisions is now nearly completed.

Carol Young Verheyen
Preparator/Conservator, Art Division
Huntington Art Gallery

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