During the 1880s, Henry Chandler Bowen, a prominent New York businessman and newspaper owner, undertook a major refurbishing of the public rooms at Roseland Cottage, the Gothic Revival summer home he had built in his hometown of Woodstock, Connecticut, in 1846. Chief among the renovations was the installation of ten different patterns of a newly patented wall covering that imitated richly tooled and gilded leather. These coverings, called Lincrusta-Walton for inventor Fredrick Walton, were an offshoot of the linoleum industry and were made of wood pulp and linseed oil. The mixture was hardened to a semi-rigid state and then roller-embossed to create designs in shallow relief. The pliable coverings were then backed with jute and decorated either at the manufacturing plant or after installation. Advertised as “indestructible,” they were emblematic of the many manufactured goods newly available to American homeowners. Lincrusta-Walton was affordable in the 1880s in homes such as Roseland Cottage and John D. Rockefeller’s house in New York City; by the turn of the century the cost had dropped enough to enable landlords to install it in the hallways of New York tenements.
Even so, relatively few examples of Lincrusta-Walton survive today in their original settings and with their original surface coatings. At Roseland Cottage, the wall coverings are mostly intact. Bowen’s descendants never updated his decorative schemes, perhaps out of respect, or perhaps due to shared tastes. Today the house reflects only two periods—the original Gothic Revival treatment and the 1880s re-furbishing. The wall coverings have, however, suffered discoloration and some actual losses due to settling and the material’s brittle nature. Last season I was part of a team effort led by Historic New England to stabilize the wall coverings in the entry hall and dining room and try to recapture at least part of Henry Bowen’s original intended effect. The project, involving both museum staff and independent consultants, was funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
In assessing the damage, we found significant plaster failure in both the hall and dining room, along with damage from old repairs and soot from a coal-burning furnace. After evaluating the condition and completing the paint analysis, we began with thorough cleaning to remove accumulations of dust and grime. Damaged plaster was re-keyed to lath and losses were filled with new plaster matching the original. Where sections of Lincrusta-Walton were missing or too severely damaged to readhere, they were replaced with replicas. To do this, we followed a process developed twenty years ago by SPNEA (now Historic New England), which has since become a standard procedure of replicating surface textures used by conservators across the country. Essentially, it involves making a shallow relief mold of an undamaged section of the pattern, making a cast from it, patching the new section into place, and then coloring it to match the surrounding area.
In addition to conserving the wall coverings, the team also cleaned and repaired the trompe-l’oeil quarter-sawn oak graining on the woodwork and replicated the decorative distemper paints on the hall and dining room cornice, ceilings, and ceiling medallion. Microscopic analysis revealed a spectrum of pinks, greens, grays, and cool lavenders. Not surprisingly, all colors harmonized with the original colors of the wall coverings.
The final task was to inpaint the numerous areas of cast replica Lincrusta-Walton, or “fills.” Instead of using metallic powders mixed into the varnish, which had been used to color the originals, we chose colored mica powders, as they remain more stable. Following a primary tenet of conservation, in-painting was applied only on the new fills; no additional material was added to the original wall coverings. Although cleaning removed grime, and thus brightened the papers, the original brilliance of the various copper, silver, gold, and bronze powders is no longer visible. The metal powders have corroded, turning brown and then black over time. Unfortunately, no process can reverse this degradation, so the original glow of the combined hues is lost except in a few areas. Behind the two massive sideboards in the dining room, the Lincrusta-Walton still displays multi-colored glittery surfaces. Due to the absence of light and air circulation as well as the probability that the furniture was not moved when the walls were washed, these brilliant sections have been passively preserved by simply being hidden.
In the course of the year-long restoration, I was struck by Bowen’s idiosyncratic use of color and pattern, quite unlike any I have encountered in other interiors of this period. Bowen’s chosen palette favored intense hues rather than the “drabs” or tertiary colors popular for Gothic cottages. The hall and dining room display wall covering patterns in mixed styles with a Renaissance Revival field pattern, combined with an Aesthetic period dado. Although the Lincrusta-Walton no longer telegraphs resplendency, the pink and gold china, newly gilded cornice and ceiling medallion, and densely patterned, highly colored carpets all make it possible to imagine the impact on Bowen’s many distinguished guests at his Fourth of July parties. In the warm light of kerosene lamps, gleaming china, crisp table linens, and glittering bronze and silver on the walls told of Bowen’s achievement as a native son who left town at the age of twenty-one and returned home a successful entrepreneur and political figure.