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Domestic Archaeology: Uncovering Clayton's Interior Finishes

Domestic Archaeology: Uncovering Clayton's Interior Finishes
October 15, 2020 By: Dawn Reid Brean, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts

Domestic Archaeology: Uncovering Clayton's Interior Finishes

It’s a common conception that historic house museums are “frozen in time.” But like any home, house museums represent the families who lived within them and reflect their evolving personalities and changing tastes. Think of your own living space. Have you ever painted a room or spent the day peeling layers of wallpaper from a previous resident?

While the exterior structure of Clayton remains largely unchanged since the 1890s, the interior walls witnessed several changes over the years as fashions swung from wallpaper to painted canvas to silk and back again. When Clayton was converted from a private residence to a public house museum, these changes presented architects and conservators with some surprises and challenges.

The interior finishes at Clayton are elaborate and the effect can be overwhelming. As John Robbins, project architect with supervising architectural firm The Office of Thierry W. Despont, described in a 1987 interview with The Pittsburgh Press, “Every room that you enter, you’re besieged with an onslaught of exotic finishes.” Few expected that those finishes concealed even more decorations beneath. 

Following Helen Clay Frick’s death in 1984, architects and curators began the research and exploratory work to prepare for Clayton’s restoration. In a process one reporter described as “domestic archaeology,” restoration staff carefully examined and removed interior wall coverings, assessing their condition, authenticity, and often revealing surprises that demonstrated previous decorating choices by the Fricks. But these discoveries also posed a conundrum for the restoration staff. As architect Despont described it, “The house went through three stages of renovation, and the question is, to what point do you bring it back? What we’ve decided is to show Clayton as a living thing that has evolved as the family’s tastes developed. So we won’t fix it at a particular year.” 2 In some cases, the hidden finishes were restored in their entirety but in others, they were carefully documented and then secreted away again in favor of a different finish from a different period.

Delving beneath the reception room’s damask wall covering installed by Helen Clay Frick in the 1950s, architects found a beautifully painted frieze of roses on a trellis. It matched the decoration seen in circa 1901 photographs of the room and was original to the expansion and renovation completed by Frederick J. Osterling in 1892.

Ca. 1892 frieze found beneath the ca. 1950s wall covering, photo ca. 1984. 

Reception room, 1901.

The reception room was particularly challenging as the most extensively altered of the public spaces on the first floor. While the discovery of the original 1890s frieze was exciting, it was complicated by the fact that none of the original furnishings from the 1890s survived, with the exception of the rug. In 1904, Cottier & Company extensively renovated the space. Decorators provided new fabric wall coverings, draperies, and a marble mantle, raised the wainscoting, refinished the woodwork, and—the most dramatic change—installed an elaborate ceiling and cornice with lacquered and gilded accents.  Restoring the painted canvas frieze and interpreting the space to the 1890s would have necessitated deinstalling or even demolishing many of the later elements which were more complete in their entirety and in remarkably good condition. Ultimately, staff opted to document the frieze and leave it in place behind a newly created silk wall covering designed to match the one provided by Cottier in 1904.

Reception Room, 1984. 


Conservator Robert Furhoff cleaning wall canvas in reception room in the late 1980s.

Reception room, present day.

Similarly, evidence of previous decoration was found on the walls of the parlor when a fragment of the velvet wall covering was removed. The decoration clearly relates to what is seen in the circa 1901 photographs of the parlor, also original to the Osterling renovation. But like the reception room, the parlor was extensively renovated by Cottier & Company in 1904. In addition to the velvet wall coverings, decorators gilded sections of the walnut woodwork and installed a new gilded ceiling. The 1890s decoration was in an incomplete state and poor condition. The architects recommended that the parlor’s treatment involve the least amount of alteration and that the room be left as a representative of the decoration from the early 1900s. This decision was made easier by the fact that a 1908 photograph of the room decorated for Helen Clay Frick’s debut showed many of the same objects on view in the circa 1901 photographs, most of which survived. The cut velvet fabric on the lower panels was replaced, but the original velvet frieze adorned with mother-of-pearl sequins and metallic thread remained in place.


Parlor decoration in the late 1980s.

Parlor, 1901.

Parlor, present day.

Further surprises awaited in the breakfast room. During an exploratory removal of the fabric wall covering, staff discovered plaster tracery behind mauve-colored silk installed by Cottier in 1904. The tracery matched the elaborate decoration accented with aluminum leaf on the ceiling and corresponded to circa 1901 photographs of the room. Although it had been chipped away in some spots to install the fabric, it was overall in remarkably good condition. In this case, architects chose to repair the original tracery ornament which had significance as one of the earliest decorative applications of aluminum in a domestic setting. (To read more about the aluminum decoration, check out this blog post.) Expert plaster craftsmen J.J. Morris and Sons recreated the missing tracery in much the same way a pastry chef decorates a cake with piped icing while A.J. Vater and Company helped to restore the original paint scheme.

Breakfast Room, 1984.


Furhoff removing silk wall covering.


Aluminum decoration uncovered.

Breakfast room, 1901.


Craftsmen restoring plaster tracery in breakfast room, ca. 1984.

Breakfast room, present day.

One more surprise was in store upstairs in the Frick family’s sitting room and library. Dark brown silk wall coverings, once again installed by Cottier & Company in 1904, were discovered to be hiding painted jute tapestries created by Kimbel & Sons during the Osterling renovation in 1892. Because the rooms were otherwise intact to Osterling’s original design, it was a relatively easy decision to remove the later wall coverings and conserve the painted tapestries.

Library, 1984.

Sitting room, 1984.

Sitting room, present day.

Other rooms were far more straightforward. Henry Clay Frick’s bedroom, the nursery, and blue room all retained their original painted canvas decorated by Kimbel & Sons to Osterling’s specifications in 1892. But there was still work to be done, as these walls were coated with 100 years of Pittsburgh soot and grime. Varnish, which had yellowed over time, distorted the original colors. Some rooms had been conserved or repainted over the years, but the quality of those treatments varied.

Conservator Christine Daulton examining the painted wall canvas in Henry Clay Frick’s bedroom in the 1980s.

Conservators assessed the condition of each room’s wall decoration and suggested appropriate treatments to restore them to a state more closely resembling their original appearance. First, conservators removed the top surface layers of dirt and grime, testing small areas to ensure the cleaning solvents would not adversely react to the painted canvas. In some areas, the canvas had loosened and was pulling away from the walls. In those instances, conservators re-adhered the canvas to the plaster using a hypodermic syringe to inject an adhesive made of wheat starch paste. Some areas needed to be infilled and repainted due to losses, which conservators completed using reversible acrylic paints. They then layered the repainted areas with a patina to match the surrounding canvas and appear appropriately aged.


Conservator Brian Howard test cleaning a patch of the painted wall canvas in Henry Clay Frick’s bedroom.

Mr. Frick's bedroom, 1901.

Mr. Frick’s bedroom, present day.


Conservator Brian Howard cleaning painted canvas in the nursery in the 1980s.

Nursery, 1901.

Nursery, present day.

Blue room test cleaning in the 1980s.


Painters cleaning ceiling of blue room in the 1980s.

Blue room, 1901.

Blue room, present day.

The restoration of each room required careful deliberation and methodical skill. Since the restoration’s staff approach was not to fix Clayton to one particular time period, that allowed them flexibility to make the choice that would be the least invasive to the surviving architecture and allow for the greatest degree of authenticity in showcasing the home as an evolving embodiment of the Frick family’s tastes. But determining what should be preserved was not always an easy choice. Some of Clayton’s history will always remain hidden from view.

Patricia Lowry, “A Passionate Preservation,” The Pittsburgh Press, April 14, 1987, B7.
Grace Glueck, “Putting Back the Character,” South Florida Sun Sentinel, January 8, 1988, 3E.

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