Remodeling of president's Indianapolis home preserves history

Remodeling of president's Indianapolis home preserves history

As the nation observes Washington's Birthday and the recent inauguration of its 44th president, Indianapolis has its own reason to celebrate: the recent completion of the newly remodeled President Benjamin Harrison Home.

After a yearlong renovation, Harrison's 10,000-square-foot Italianate Victorian at 1230 N. Delaware may be in its best condition since Harrison lived there more than 100 years ago thanks to a federal grant, private donations and a team of restoration contractors.

At times, the project required more detective work than design flair. The goal of the restoration was to restore the home's library, formal and informal parlors and an upstairs hallway to reflect the period Harrison lived there until his death in 1901. To do so, the restoration team scoured photographs, newspaper accounts and the home itself for clues.

Project designer David Kroll, preservation director for Ratio Architects, says recreating the Victorian-era wall coverings in the parlors and library proved the most difficult, and ultimately the most interesting, part of the job.

Kroll and the restoration team started with worn wall coverings installed in the first-floor library and formal and informal parlors during a major remodel in the 1970s. Although historically appropriate, they didn't accurately reflect the Harrison family's original wallpaper. For help, he called on Walter Knabe, an Indianapolis artist who specializes in creating custom wall coverings and fabric. "We had to do a lot of detective work," Knabe says.

Despite having quality black-and-white photos that showed each room's original condition, Knabe says they didn't help much with aesthetic elements like scale, color and determining how the patterns repeated.

"The photos weren't taken for historical documentation," says Knabe's studio director, Laura Corman. "So, nothing was to scale and it didn't look exactly like what we thought we were going to see."

Then workers found behind a walnut bookcase a restoration expert's equivalent of the Rosetta stone: a poster-sized patch of the original paper. "It was definitely an 'ah-ha' moment," Kroll says.

Knabe painted repeating, interweaving patterns to duplicate each of the three rooms' original designs. Once the patterns met Harrison Home curators' approval, Knabe built screen plates. Each individual color element within each of the three separate designs required its own screen. He then sequentially hand-pressed paint through the screens onto 18-inch-wide strips of paper to achieve each design's layered and repeating pattern.

"Everything we do uses hand-printed techniques," Knabe says. "And originally, the wallpaper would have been made that way."

Another gem revealed in the restoration was a plaster ceiling medallion obscured by more than 100 years of paint. Sometime after 1901, someone removed the front formal parlor's ceiling medallion. But, according to Harrison Home Foundation director Phyllis Geeslin, the home's original 1874 construction receipts revealed the rear informal parlor's ceiling medallion wasan exact duplicate. "That type of documentation is wonderful to have," Geeslin says.

To duplicate the medallion, restoration workers painstakingly scraped away paint layers from the remaining medallion, revealing intricate flower petals and scallops. They made a mold of the original and installed the duplicated medallion in the front parlor. "It's very exciting now that the medallions look exactly like they did when the house was built," Geeslin says.

Replacing an upstairs hallway's carpeting with more historically accurate hardwood floors represented the restoration's final phase. When the workers removed the carpet, they found a plywood sub-floor, another holdover from the 1970s remodel. "We were horrified," Geeslin says. Brandt Construction, the project's general contractor, milled, installed and stained narrow planks of oak to better reflect the time period's workmanship. "It's neat to know you're working in a president's home and trying to get things back to the way they were when he lived there," says Brandt Construction President Todd Mattingly.

The attention to detail on the Harrison Home project doesn't come cheap. The Harrison Home Foundation secured a $200,000 federal grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and raised an additional $200,000 in private donations. "It's a very competitive program," says Bobbie McCarthy-Greene, program director for NTHP. "We only fund nationally significant projects that will immediately benefit the local, regional or national community."

The Harrison Home Foundation expects more than 25,000 people to visit the home this year. With renovations wrapping up last month, a visitor today can view the closest thing to what Harrison and his family experienced 120 years ago. And according to Geeslin, there's more turning back the clock to come. She says this year's improvement plan includes continued restoration and relocating the foundation's business offices out of the residence to decrease wear and tear on the historic site.

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We're visiting Indy. How much is the fee to tour the house? Is it open on Sundays?

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