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Restoring an Artist’s Studio in Maine

A century of weathering left American painter Winslow Homer’s coastal Maine studio in disrepair—until a team of experts stepped in to make it better than new. By John Schnitzler & Laura Pope

     A small army of restoration specialists revived the seaside studio over the course of several years.

    A small army of restoration specialists revived the seaside studio over the course of several years. (Photo: Trent Bell)

    It was described as “maintained over the years,” but on closer inspection, the Winslow Homer Studio was more like the name of one of the artist’s iconic masterpieces: weatherbeaten.

    The two-story carriage house with a mansard roof first belonged to Homer’s father as part of a massive Shingle Style house by the sea, purchased in 1883. Within a year, the small structure was moved a hundred feet further down the shoreline and redesigned by Homer’s architect friend John Calvin Stevens as a studio and residence to suit the artist’s needs.

    The Portland Museum of Art bought the building in January 2006, intending “to preserve and interpret the inspirational setting” on Prout’s Neck, Maine. After completing a meticulous, multi-million-dollar restoration designed to bring the studio back to 1910 (the year Homer died), the building opened for public tours for the first time ever last September.

    Structural Support

    The team poured new concrete footings to stabilize the poorly constructed original stone foundation.

    The team poured new concrete footings to stabilize the poorly constructed original stone foundation.

    It took six years to complete the painstaking project; work took place in three “summer season” phases, driven by guidelines set by the American Association of Museums and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation. The ravages of time and the often merciless seaside weather had understandably compromised the fabric of the studio, but design flaws in the building’s original construction also had taken a toll.

    For instance, the shallow, poorly laid foundation had allowed water and moisture to breach the crawlspace and infiltrate downstairs rooms, especially the Painting Room. After supporting the building and painstakingly digging out the original foundation, “the stone foundations of the entire building were underpinned with concealed concrete footings in order to stabilize the building,” says Craig Whitaker of Mills Whitaker Architects, whom the museum hired to research the history of the building and determine the scope of restoration.

    The oversized Queen Anne-style chimney built on a shallow rubble foundation was another area of concern. Described by architectural historian James F. O’Gorman as “relieved by four projecting belt courses, a flared top, and a decorative pattern of single projecting bricks,” the chimney had started to pitch into the building.

    Bricks were numbered before being removed from the chimney.

    Bricks were numbered before being removed from the chimney. (Photo: Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art)

    “The chimney was leaning several inches inward toward the house, and the whole building was triangulating as a result,” explains mason, carpenter, and millwright Robert Cariddi, who lent his expertise to several aspects of the project. “It drifted in because they built this massive chimney on top of a loose rubble base,” he adds. “The chimney also leaked like a sieve. So basically, we had two problems—we had to fix the base and straighten out the stack.”

    Repairs began with the remarkable engineering feat of lifting the monumental 8-ton chimney stack with steel supports to install a new footing, then pulling it straight and back into place, followed by repointing the mortar and reinstalling
    the firebox and hearth.

    Shoring Up the Chimney

    Craftsman Robert Cariddi describes the process of righting the house’s massive chimney as “the scariest thing I’ve ever done.” Following specs from the project’s structural engineer, Cariddi and his team “slid one large I-beam horizontally through the firebox, which was supported by four smaller I-beams, and those sat on 50-ton jacks. A mason knocked out bricks for the holes for the steel; in a weakened structure, it was a bit scary. We had 10 men to slide the I-beams through onto the jacks.” Using the steel as a cradle and pivot point, with cabling attached to 3 tons of dunnage and a strong arm supporting it the other way, the team slowly pulled the chimney back into position over the course of a few days.

    “We got to a point where we could safely excavate the stone rubble base and pour a monolithic amount of concrete, fortified with steel, into the base,” Cariddi says. “On top of this footer, we built up one layer of concrete blocks, mortared between brick and blocks, and then put the hearth back in. We numbered every one of the 140 hearth bricks with blue tape to make sure they went back correctly.” Although masons cut out the old mortar on the exterior stack and repointed it, no bricks needed to be replaced. “We did put those holes through by knocking out bricks,” says Cariddi, “but we put them all back.”

    Workers prepare to install the new and restored piazza brackets.

    Workers prepare to install the new and restored piazza brackets. (Photo: Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art)

    Another obvious problem area involved the decorative Eastlake-style brackets designed by John Calvin Stevens to support the second-story piazza, which gave the artist sweeping views of the Atlantic from his upstairs painting loft. The brackets had been inadequately fastened to east- and south-facing exterior walls, where “snow and wind from this large cantilevered porch exerted very large loads on the building,” explains Whitaker. As a result, he says, “about 260 square feet [of the piazza], or nearly one half the size of the upstairs loft, began to sag.”

    “When we first saw the eight piazza brackets, one was totally gone and a few were in jeopardy,” recalls Cariddi, who transported them to his home workshop. All bracket surfaces were allowed to dry out before being treated with polymers—except for three, which were either partially or completely reproduced.

    Installing the brackets back onto the piazza demanded steel reinforcement to bolster the structure. “By the time we arrived,” explains Whitaker, “vertical posts and beams had been added at the perimeter of the piazza to help support it. We substantially reinforced it with concealed steel angles in the walls. Stainless steel reinforcements also were installed to tie the original brackets back to the building.”

    The restored studio (top) is a dramatic contrast to its 2006 appearance (bottom).The restored studio (top) is a dramatic contrast to its 2006 appearance (bottom).

    The restored studio (top) is a dramatic contrast to its 2006 appearance (bottom). (Photos: Trent Bell, Bernard C. Meyers)

    “They were welded to bottom plates, bolted into the sill and top plate,” says Cariddi. “We used stainless steel lags, and we also put lead-coated copper pans on top of the brackets before the new decking. At the top of each bracket, a strap was fixed and installed into the second-floor joist system; we put 100 screws into each one to ensure added support.”

    A substantial amount of new steel also was added to the main building in the form of a new roof. “A concealed galvanized steel structure was installed on top of the original roof sheathing at the second-floor loft,” Cariddi explains. “That allowed us to restore the loft to a single large open space, as it had been in Homer’s time, and to install concealed utilities such as electrical, security, and fire suppression systems.”

    Cariddi and his son, Sebastian, also repaired existing windows and reproduced others to match originals—including an Eastlake picture window, visible in historic photos of the building, that had been replaced with a steel casement. “We made our own knives to the correct profile of the mullions and used historic salvaged glass to make the window,” says Cariddi.

    Bringing It Back

    Inside the studio, the team removed, restored, or repaired several elements, from beadboard wainscoting to window sash, including a pane of glass the artist had etched with his name using a diamond ring. They also conserved and reinforced plaster, which was deteriorating from moisture and age; repaired, reinforced, or replaced flooring; and restored interior finishes.

    After being patched and repaired, the mantel was reinstalled in the studio’s main room.

    After being patched and repaired, the mantel was reinstalled in the studio’s main room. (Photo: Trent Bell)

    Modifications made in the 1930s on the second floor—the addition of dormers and bedrooms to turn the space into an apartment—were removed and replaced with period-specific materials to restore the floor to its original use as a painting loft. Other details added after Homer’s death, such as the steel casement window on the south façade and the colonnaded entry, were likewise removed.

    Repairing the Mantel

    The final finish is applied to the restored mantel.

    The final finish is applied to the restored mantel. (Photo: Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art)

    The studio’s chimney had leaked for years, and the large pine mantel hugging the oversized fireplace in the studio’s main room had suffered the consequences—damage and rot, and eventual separation from the wall. “The mantel had to be removed; it was so rotted that you could see brick behind it,” recalls Robert Cariddi. He used thin pry bars and chisels to remove the mantel, and a regular putty knife (sharpened to a chisel point) and hammer to cut through nails.

    The mantel was then transported to his Buxton, Maine, workshop and repaired in stages. First, Cariddi carefully removed rot from the back of the mantel, treating it with an epoxy consolidator and patching it with mahogany, “to give the mantel something to hold onto and as blocking to remount it to the wall.” Holes on the front of the mantel were patched with pine and touched up with matching finishes. Additionally, Cariddi reproduced a couple of small moldings for the flat frieze board at the front of the mantel.

    Getting the restored mantel back into place was a bit of a struggle, thanks to issues caused by the chimney’s undersized footing and constant exposure to moisture. “It had to be bent around the chimney, which had a bulge in it; the front face of the brick had an inch rolled out in the middle,” Cariddi says. “We pressed the mantel into place and attached it with star point trim screws, placing them in strategic areas to hide them from view, but also to hold the mantel securely in place.”

    The Painting Room sports refurbished beadboard wainscoting; this section of the room highlights Winslow Homer’s career as  an illustrator.

    The Painting Room sports refurbished beadboard wainscoting; this section of the room highlights Winslow Homer’s career as an illustrator. (Photo: Trent Bell)

    Beadboard, the predominant wall treatment in the studio, was in bad shape due to a combination of factors, including dry rot, corroded fasteners, and general shifting of material in the building due to age and weather. Throughout the studio, beadboard was removed, cleaned, repaired where necessary, and reinstalled.

    “Altogether, it took 800 hours,” recalls site superintendent Geoffrey Goba. “Not only was it time-consuming to remove and repair the beadboard, but in some instances we had to reproduce sections of it. We used a Fein oscillating tool to cut the nails; each piece was numbered and recorded as it was removed from the wall. Much of it was simply dusted off to preserve the patina and fabric, and put back. It was such a meticulous process that a shadow line made from a picture hanging over the fireplace is still there after removal, repair, and reinstallation.”

    A pane of glass that the artist etched with his name was carefully preserved.

    A pane of glass that the artist etched with his name was carefully preserved. (Photo: Trent Bell)

    The downstairs Painting Room demanded extra special care due to wood rot and decay; Goba estimates that they reproduced 10 percent of the beadboard. “The beadboard was a hodgepodge of sizes,” he says. “In the end, we used five different sizes to reproduce it. It was as if the original beadboard had been put together with scrap pieces or mill run boards of wood.”

    After the arduous six-year process, the Winslow Homer Studio has rekindled the artist’s perfect perch—a place where America’s foremost marine and landscape painter found shelter and gathered inspiration.

    Restoration carpenter John Schnitzler learned his trade at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he has worked for 34 years. Journalist Laura Pope has written for several magazines, including New Hampshire Home and National Geographic Traveler.

    Published in: Old-House Journal June/July 2013



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