Woodlawn receives $55,000 to conserve rare best bed

Woodlawn is pleased to announce that it has received two major grants that will allow the institution to conserve and preserve its rare best bed. With elegant festoon drapery curtains, it is widely considered to be one of the most important historic beds in America. In 1827 Colonel John Black purchased the bedstead and the English cotton dimity curtains and silk fringe in Boston, Massachusetts, for his new house in Ellsworth. It survives as not only a Maine treasure but also a national treasure. Conservation grants were awarded to Woodlawn from the Coby Foundation, Ltd., in New York City, $55,000, and the Felicia Fund, $20,000, in Providence, Rhode Island.

John Black’s best bed is rare and remarkable survival. The carved mahogany bedstead frame and English dimity cotton dimity curtains with silk fringe remain in the very same room where the bed was first installed in 1827. Adding to its rarity, the original invoices for the purchase of the bed and its hangings survive, as do other elements of the original bed including: the brass cornice elements, its linen sacking bottom, and mattresses. Significantly, the bed is documented by a drawing sent by the Boston upholsterer with instructions for how to install it. Remarkably, the casings for the hair mattress and featherbed also survive. Even stains on the featherbed cover indicating problems with bed bugs survive, illuminating a common problem in nineteenth-century domestic life that even John Black wasn’t immune too.

These fragile furnishings survived two more generations to inhabit the house, the last being the builder’s grandson, George Nixon Black, Jr. (or Nixon as he was familiarly called). Woodlawn was his ancestral summer home and he ensured its preservation. His extraordinary textiles, fragile as they are, have been accessible to the public since the house opened in 1929. Nowhere else in America can one see an original best bed of this quality. Indeed, Woodlawn’s 1827 best bed is an iconic American artifact. This is why Woodlawn chose to conserve the textiles rather than replace them.

“We are most grateful to the Coby Foundation and the Felicia Fund for their generous support to preserve one of America’s great historical treasures and for sharing our commitment to ensuring that it remain on view to the public,” remarked Joshua C. Torrance, Woodlawn’s executive director.

Natalie Larson, a reproduction textile specialist based in Williamsburg, Virginia and owner of Historic Textile Reproductions, has help refurnish early American bedsteads in house museums across the country, including many of the presidential mansions. She observed with amazement and admiration, “Black’s bed is the best documented, extant bed known in America. It tells the most complete story of the owner, time, place, and price. It has all of its original components – bedstead, curtains, bedding. It’s in the same house and same room. There are bills of sale. It’s the only one known with an illustration from the upholsterer who details the order in which the curtains are to be hung. Woodlawn’s 1827 best bed offers the most complete story. There isn’t another one like it! And we’re still learning more about it. Inscriptions found on the cornice have yet to be deciphered so there’s still more to learn.”

BedBeginning on October 24, 2012 a team of museum and conservation specialists worked for three and one-half days on the methodical documentation and careful de-upholstery of the bedstead. Deirdre Windsor of Windsor Conservation, Dover, Massachusetts, one of America’s leading textile conservators, led the process, assisted by Jon Brandon of East Point Conservation Studio in Brunswick, Maine. Ms. Larson made scale drawings to document how the twenty-two individual pieces were constructed 185 years ago. Woodlawn’s Sleigh Barn became an on-site photography studio for J. David Bohl, a freelance museum photographer from Hull, Massachusetts, and formerly Historic New England’s staff photographer, who photographed each of the textile elements as well as the process of de-upholstery in the bed chamber. Laura Fecych Sprague, an independent museum curator and a leading scholar of Maine’s early material culture, organized the work plan, and executive director Joshua Campbell Torrance facilitated the many detailed steps onaked bedf the process. Earlier in October Walter Smalling, an architectural photographer from Penobscot, Maine, and Washington, DC, generously contributed a series of photographs documenting how the bed appeared prior to conservation work.

The conservation of the bed and curtains will occur over the next year. The curtains will be professionally cleaned and stabilized at Windsor Conservation and reinstalled with improved ultraviolet light-filtering materials to ensure their preservation. East Point Conservation Studio will conserve the bed on site. Reinstallation will take place during the fall of 2013, accompanied by public programs to explore and celebrate their importance to American social history.