A Tornado & A Gothic Revival Secretary Bookcase
Sometime late in the day of April 27, 2011, an EF4 tornado devastated portions of the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The subsequent restoration of a circa 1835 secretary, damaged as a result of the tornado, is a testament to the fascinating, although terrible, characteristics of these weather events.
The mahogany veneered secretary was, according to family tradition, brought from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to Alabama sometime in the late 19th century. While the exact origin is difficult to determine, there were no maker’s marks, signatures, etc., observed, the combination of secondary woods; tulip poplar and hard pine, are consistent with other documented southern furniture secondary woods from the mid-nineteenth century. The secretary has an architectural feel, with specific gothic and classical elements incorporated into the overall composition. It stands just over nine feet in height and has a veneered cyma moulding attached to the front edges of the secretary and bookcase sections and gothic arch appliqués on the bookcase doors. The cornice pediment invokes a Greek/classical influence, although it is fairly simple in its execution. It is easy to imagine this statuesque form in an antebellum home anywhere throughout the American south.
This design is probably a server. However, the profile of the pediment likely influenced the maker’s choice for the profile of the secretary bookcase pediment. Image from Household Furniture and Interior Decoration by Thomas Hope. Reprint by John Tiranti, LTD, London, 1937 and 1946.
Whoever the cabinetmaker was, he was familiar with fashionable design influences of his day. He was also well trained in his craft as the joinery and overall execution of the secretary attest. Moreover, he selected very high quality crotch mahogany veneer and utilized bookmatched patterning of the veneer on all front show surfaces. For the interior of the secretary drawer he chose maple and bird’s eye maple veneer for the prospect door. The light colored maple creates a distinct visual contrast with the darker, rich mahogany. The contrast seems, arguably, to conjure the classical taste for polychromy in architecture and decorative art.
A lithograph of excavations from Pompeii and Hercuaneum from the Royal Museum in Naples. Note how the lighter center panel is surrounded by darker colors. Arguably, neo-classical taste was influenced by such classical decorative motifs.
Much of the damage was sustained when the bookcase section was blown out of the owner’s home. The bookcase smashed through French doors and traveled several hundred feet before crashing in the backyard. What is truly remarkable is that other lighter objects, in the same room as the secretary, were not dislocated. The surfaces of the secretary section sustained minor surface abrasions and the finish was water damaged.
It was very important to the owner, primarily for sentimental reasons, that as much of the original fabric as possible be preserved and that the restorations be sensitively integrated with remaining original parts. A condition assessment was performed to determine the actual scope of the restoration needed. There were three primary considerations:
- What parts were extant and repairable for reintegration?
- What parts were beyond repair?
- What parts are missing?
In addition, an assessment of previous, or pre-loss, restorations was performed. Previous repairs/restorations observed were fairly typical for those found on veneered furniture. Small veneer restorations were noted overall along outside edges, at the corners of the drawer fronts, and along the edges of the top of the secretary section. Larger areas of veneer restoration included the feet, the writing surface of the secretary drawer, and the opposing ogee profile appliqués at the base of the bookcase doors.
Major structural losses included door rails and stiles, a wedge shaped section of one of the door panels and the front piece of a shallow plinth that was nailed to the bottom of the bookcase. The return plinth sections were extant but heavily abraded. The plinth at the bottom of the bookcase is a shallower version of the wider plinth at the base of the secretary section, above the bracket feet. Other structural door looses included sections of the Gothic arch appliqué at the top of the door with the loss in the panel and a section of the opposing ogee appliqué at the doors base. Minor structural door losses can be easily seen in the photographs and appear as lighter colored rectangular and wedge shaped pieces of long leaf southern pine. Except for a pock-marked surface from flying debris, split and loose backboards and an elongated wedge shaped break along the rear edge of one side panel the structural integrity of the bookcase carcass was surprisingly stable.
In order to integrate the long leaf pine restoration into the remaining original section of the door panel, the door panel was dry clamped in place and a precise wedge shaped reveal was routed in the verso to receive the restoration piece. Care was taken not to rout through the show veneer.
After routing and fitting the pine restoration, the mahogany restoration show veneer was integrated into the recto of the door panel and adhered with animal hide glue. Once the glue hardened, the components of the door unit, including the stiles and rails (both original and restoration) were reassembled. Next, mahogany veneer loss compensation was performed overall as needed. Veneer restoration was required overall and primarily consisted of narrow sections of cross banding. The components sustaining the most veneer loss were the doors, the door appliques, and the cornice. Other surface abrasions and gouges were filled with pigmented paste epoxy.
The original mahogany veneer is of a high quality and the use of scavenged, or recycled veneer, collected over the years for just this purpose, from severely damaged furniture of the period was essential to satisfactorily blend mahogany restorations and original surface. After the structural repairs had been performed, including reattachment of the bookcase backboards, the extant finish was removed from the secretary and bookcase sections. At times, period or older resin coated finishes are reformed rather than being removed. However, with the present example extant finish coatings were applied on top of veneer restorations, from previous restoration campaigns, that lacked the density and color richness of the best Caribbean mahogany. The use of inferior mahogany, lacking the color richness and density of period mahogany, is a certain indicator that this veneer is not original. The surfaces were now ready for a restoration “French” polish.
The first step is to pore fill the wood surfaces. Pore filling, with pumice and very thin shellac, allows for a very thin final coating of shellac which results in a shimmering and evenly reflective surface quality that enhances the richness, and depth of figure, of the high quality mahogany veneer the maker chose for his creation. After the pore filling has been completed, retouching of the epoxy fills was performed with alcohol soluble dyes, dry pigments and shellac. The objective is to blend restorations/fills with adjacent surfaces so that the surface color appears unified after “French” polishing is completed. Additional restoration included a baize writing surface liner and the polishing of brass hardware.
Restoring and conserving the secretary bookcase involved the interfacing of three individuals - the owner, insurance adjuster and conservator. It is not uncommon to discover, after a loss, that little pre-loss condition information, including appraisals and photographs exist for an art collection(s). Having this information makes the task for the appraiser and conservator much easier and can often stream-line the settlement process. For the conservator, especially, this information can assist in a thorough evaluation of the object’s pre-loss and post-loss condition, which at times is not always easy to discern.
Although I am not an appraiser I am confident in my conclusion that the restoration and conservation of the secretary exceeded its market value. Objects such as this, without strong provenance, and as a result of having undergone previous restoration campaigns, do not garner strong interest among collectors. In addition, its scale does not lend itself to the proportions and floor plans of contemporary housing. However it is easy to imagine the secretary gracing the rooms of a grand antebellum home for which it was originally intended.
Related Content: Treatment example page for this project