VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) — Mark R. Wenger, crouched on all fours inside the dining room at the Grouseland mansion, craned his neck and leaned deep into the fireplace, a tiny flashlight shining a beam inside the more than 200-year-old crevice.
“There, see that, that black,” he said, his voice echoing around the small chamber. “That’s what we’re looking for.
“That tells us there really was a fireplace here. That (soot) is more than 200 years old.”
Wenger and a handful of architects and preservationists with New York-based firm of Mesick Cohen Wilson and Baker were recently on site at the William Henry Harrison mansion to put the finishing touches on the specifications for a $1.2 million restoration set to get underway at Grouseland later this year.
They’ve been working for months, paying periodic visits to the mansion, to look for clues as to what the home might have looked like — the finishings it would have had — when it was first built in 1804 as Harrison's residence while he was governor of the Indiana Territory. Harrison was elected ninth president of the United States in 1840.
In the more than two centuries since the house was built, it’s passed through many hands — and been through multiple restorations and renovations. So it was up to Wenger and his colleagues to go in search of buried treasure.
One such treasure was the discovery of an original fireplace on the south end of the dining room. Yet another was that the large dining room was actually likely never a large dining room at all, but rather two smaller rooms as signs of a wall were found underneath the existing wood floor, evidence that Harrison likely never entertained guests in that dining room at all.
“And over here,” said Grouseland Foundation executive director Lisa Ice-Jones, the thrill clear in her voice. “Look at what they found over here in these windows.”
What they uncovered, architects said, were many of the wood windows’ original interior pulley systems, ones that will be fully restored and the sashes put back as part of the restoration, Ice-Jones said.
Another major part of the project, too, will be a return to some of the home’s original paint colors.
Susan Buck, an art conservator with an extensive history of working on the restorations of presidential sites, ones like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and other historic homes, like the Owens-Thomas house in Savannah, Georgia, has been working with Mesick Cohen Wilson and Baker to specifically search for original paint colors and wall coverings.
Likely the biggest realization to come from her findings, she said, is that the bright white trim on both the interior and exterior of Grouseland was likely never bright white at all.
“This was likely added in the 1920s,” she said as she examined the woodwork on the large upstairs porch. “They wouldn’t have been able to create this bright white color in the 19th century at all.”
Buck, too, has looked at interior window trim and mantels. Her method is to create a tiny, yet deep hole in the wood; using a lighted magnifying glass, she uncovers a kind of bullseye shape, one that reveals years of paint layers.
“You can see a full paint history in this one small section,” she said with a wide smile.
The inner-most layer, she explained, often gives clues as to what the original paint or stain would have been. In many cases, in the 1804 Grouseland mansion, the colors would have been very natural, not the white they’re painted now.
“What I’m seeing are cream colors, tans, especially in these more formal parts of the house,” she said.
Buck likened her work to a giant jigsaw puzzle; she looks for pieces, sometimes taking as many as 100 samples, to put the original picture back together.
“And this is all such a big deal,” she said, her eyes sweeping around the mansion’s grant foyer.
The foundation’s board of directors in the spring of 2014 hired Mesick Cohen Wilson and Baker to do a Historic Structure Report of Grouseland.
The firm has done work on James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, George Washington’s Mount Vernon as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Popular Forest, his retreat outside Lynchburg, Virginia, and his Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia.
They recommended a $3.5 million, but the foundation has opted to take the work in phases. This first phase will include everything from a restoration of the windows, new paint, a restoration of the dining room, and exterior paint and tuck-pointing, among other projects.
And the full Historic Structure Report will exist for years to come, Ice-Jones pointed out, offering a guidebook for future board members.
“We wanted to give something to the public,” she said. “The goal of the foundation is to protect the structure of the house and refresh it, correct some of its minor discrepancies and give (return) visitors something new to see.
“We have people who have been coming back here for 30 years. So what a fantastic way to reinvigorate people’s excitement.”
Ice-Jones said they hope to have the final specifications in hand for the first phase of the project and let it out for bid within the next couple of months.
For now, the mansion remains closed to the public due to COVID-19. The foundation hasn’t ruled out reopening the home, at least in part, even during the renovation.
“We’d love to be able to incorporate both locals and tourists into the work once it begins,” she said.
Source: Vincennes Sun-Commercial