A “hot” new discovery in the Workman House!

Workman House Northwest Room
Workman House Northwest Room, looking at the southeast corner of the room.

For the past several years, a renovation project has been ongoing at the Workman House. The use of the word “renovation” is distinguished from “restoration,” because this work is not seeking to emulate or return the house back to a given historic period. Restoration would be prohibitive because the house has been so radically altered over the years and any attempt would be very difficult and costly. So, the renovation project generally involves using drywall on ceilings, new plaster on the walls and stripping old and applying new paint to wood surfaces, while preserving what can be saved of pre-1930 materials.

Current work is focused on a circa 1870s room made of red brick that was built where an earlier and smaller adobe room, perhaps built in the 1850s, had been. We know this because a remnant of an end wall for the first space is still present in the crawl-space of the current room.

The pre-1870s wallpaper that was found behind the flue box.
The pre-1870s wallpaper that was found behind the flue box (click to enlarge).

Why this became an issue is because one of the few examples of actual restoration in the house involves an original marble coal-burning fireplace that was largely intact, although its shelf had long been removed and stored separately. Consequently, workers have taken the mantel and shelf pieces offsite for cleaning and repair.

The removal of the fireplace presented an opportunity to examine the opening and we came across quite a surprise. Fragments of wallpaper were found behind the brick flue box, still attached to the plaster applied over an adobe wall for the adjoining 1840s room!

The paper is of a mustard-like base color with forest green floral and vine patterns on it and, though, much of it was singed and covered with soot, a section is much better preserved and clearly dates from before 1870.

There can be little doubt that the paper is all the remains of paper that once decorated the walls of the smaller adobe room that stood in what was less than half of the current space. It may be possible to have a wallpaper expert examine detailed photographs of the fragment and identify its age through review of period catalogs or other sources.

In any case, this is the second location where early wallpaper has been found. Nearly twenty years ago, former museum staffer Max van Balgooy located small remnants of paper in a closet under the stairs that were built in the circa 1870 remodeling of the house.

These discoveries show that no matter how much a building has been altered, there are usually at least a few places in which older materials can still be found, adding a greater depth and fuller richness to the diverse and complex history of an already-fascinating structure.

Special thanks to Assistant Director Paul Spitzzeri for contributing this post, and to Facilities Coordinator Robert Barron for capturing the process through photographs.

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