Preservation of a 1930s David Adler Home

By Ann Kennedy Haag, Chief Conservator of Frames, Furniture, Objects and Gilding,
Michael Young, Associate Conservator of Furniture,
and Josh McCauley, Associate Conservator of Frames and Gilded Objects

Gold, silver, mirrors, marble, and dynamic geometric forms accent and set off unique and in some cases unconventional design elements through one of David Adler’s 1930’s homes. Designed by David Adler and built in 1931-32, in the Georgian Revival Style, this home, under treatment by The Chicago Conservation Center, has undergone various modifications through the years. Recently acquired by the current owners, the home is in the process of a large scale and long-term renovation and restoration project.

(Above) Gilded room designed by David Adler

Gold, silver, mirrors, marble, and dynamic geometric forms accent and set off unique and in some cases unconventional design elements through one of David Adler’s 1930’s homes. Designed by David Adler and built in 1931-32, in the Georgian Revival Style, this home, under treatment by The Chicago Conservation Center, has undergone various modifications through the years. Recently acquired by the current owners, the home is in the process of a large scale and long-term renovation and restoration project.

Desiring to return portions of the home to the period style and keeping with many of the original interior designs by Adler’s sister, Frances Elkins, the current owners decided to have the original gold and aluminum leaf in the sitting room, master bedroom and master bath preserved. When asked to lend our expertise on the project, The Center welcomed the opportunity and challenge.

While The Center is known to have one of the few gilding conservation studios in the Chicagoland area, the majority of the conservation completed is of average scale; frames, chairs, and tables for example. Typically ornate, such projects require a great deal of time and attention to minute and subtle details that are efficiently completed in a studio setting. (Definition below.)

Built by itinerate workers who were said to have camped out on the lawn during the Great Depression, the home supplied both income and housing for a large number of highly skilled craftsmen and laborers. Today, an equally large number of carpenters and craftsmen busy themselves with the renovations and restorations the home requires to return it to its former grandeur.

As part of the ongoing process of preservation, The Center recently participated in the conservation and restoration of the gilt and leafed moldings adorning the three aforementioned rooms. Comprising of approximately 2,500 linear feet of molding, about half of which had been over-painted with radiator type bronze paint, and several hundred feet of new molding, the project was unusually large. Additionally, the work was required to be done on-site, differing from the majority of the gilding treatments performed by The Center.

Soil, over-paint and loss are three typical problems for most conventional frames and gilt objects. While these were the problems faced by our team of conservators, and they are not uncommon, a specialized treatment plan had to be drafted and tested before any on-site work could begin. Tests conducted by Chief Conservator of Frames, Furniture, Objects and Gilding, Ann Kennedy-Haag, determined that the molding with over-paint would need to be entirely re-gilded. Additional testing concluded that the remainder of the molding was in overall good condition and only required cleaning. Several passages in the master bath and on the crown molding in the sitting room required an adhesive to ensure the gilding would not flake and be lost. (Definition below.)

Faced with the challenges and limitations of an on-site treatment, Ann and Associate Conservator of Frames and Gilded Objects, Josh McCauley, devised a treatment plan. The plan included the cleaning of all the original surfaces, the removal of over-paint, the consolidation of flaking surfaces and the new gilding required for nearly half of the molding. Small sample boards were created to test the various materials available; also selected was a suitable adhesive with the desired reversibility standards. (Definitions below.)

Above: Associate Conservator of Furniture, Michael Young, applying red bole before gilding.

Once on-site, however, several modifications were made in order to stay on track with the original plan. The team led by Josh McCauley, assisted by Associate Conservator of Furniture, Michael Young, and Assistant Conservator of Objects, James Freeman, began the two month process of restoration and conservation to return the rooms to their former splendor.

For the first couple of weeks the team cleaned and consolidated, filled and sanded. Large portions of the original leafed surface were successfully cleaned and saved; other portions required intensive preparation for new leaf application. New gold-leaf, which is three inches wide, was laid over nearly 1,600 linear feet of molding ranging in width from 1 – 4 inches. To gain a proper perspective that is approximately equivalent to 100 + picture frames each approximately 2 ½ by 3 feet, or 11 feet total. The owners wanted to keep the historic look; therefore the newly gilded molding was “aged” to blend with the natural beauty and age of the unique home. Because of extensive planning and preparation, and in-spite of various unplanned interruptions, the team brought the treatment to a successfully executed conclusion. (Definition below.)

Above:  Associate Conservator of Frames and Gilded Objects, Josh McCauley, re-gilding the molding.

Above: Post-treatment overview

With much time, determination, and man power, the grand old home is reemerging with the gleaming splendor of its previous days.

Terms and Definitions:

  • Bole: A pinkish clay applied by an illuminator under gold leaf to make the gold appear thicker, more lavish, and three-dimensional.
  • Consolidation: Physically stabilizing an object to ensure future stability or so that further treatment procedures can be carried out safely.
  • GILDING: The application of gold or silver to a surface. (Link)
  • Gold-leaf: Very thin sheets of hand-beaten gold.
  • Over-paint: paint that was not applied by the artist but applied at a later date. It not only covers the original paint, but its presence often indicates an excessive alteration of the image.

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.

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