John Waters

Parlor restoration, part 2

A major element in the restoration of the parlor is the recreation of the elaborate hand-stenciled burlap wall covering created by William Pretyman.  Since 1991, a sample of the wall covering has been in place over the doorway leading from the parlor to the dining room.  The sample was created by The Grammar of Ornament, the Denver-based company now recreating the actual wall covering.  It is based on an intact section found behind the broad back plate of the wall sconce on the north wall.  Since that section had never been exposed to sunlight, the colors were perfectly preserved.

When the first sample was created in 1991, technology was limited in terms of “reading” the complex wall covering, which featured various layers of paint, glazes, Dutch gold, and more.  As such, the sample on view through the years is actually a bit rough compared to what the Glessners had in place.  As preparations were made for the new wall covering this year, advanced technology allowed for a much more thorough analysis of exactly what Pretyman created.  Combining these findings with historic photographs showing the entire room, Ken Miller of The Grammar of Ornament was able to identify specific features within the design including birds, flowers, and foliage which bear a striking resemblance to William Morris designs found elsewhere within the house.  In addition, the exact composition of the layers was determined, thus an extremely accurate reproduction will result.

When the Glessners first moved into their completed Prairie Avenue home in 1887, the parlor featured floral wallpaper in various shades of yellow and gold.  For reasons unknown, within five years they decided to remove that paper and redecorate the room.  France Glessner’s journal entry for June 19, 1892 indicates that “Mr. Prettyman (sic) called yesterday afternoon to consult about paper for the rooms.” 

A few things were learned about Pretyman’s process when the original wall covering was removed last week.  (The original panels have been carefully stored should technology become available in the future allowing the subsequent layers of paint to be removed without damaging Pretyman’s original design).  For one, it was determined that each section of wall was covered with a single piece of burlap, including the large unbroken north wall which measures nearly 7 by 19 feet.  (A penciled notation of the north wall indicates the exact length of this piece 18 feet, 8-1/2 inches).  In addition it was learned that the paste used to adhere the burlap to the wall was apparently not sufficient to keep the burlap stable, so hundreds and hundreds of small brads were nailed through the burlap into the wall to keep it in place.  (The removal of all these brads proved to be a slow and arduous task).  The brads were found around all the edges of the wall covering, and were randomly found throughout the panels as well.  Since the brads were clearly installed under the layers of paint, it was determined that Pretyman completed all of his design work on site, starting with the raw burlap and adding all the subsequent layers, rather than completing all of some of the work off site at his studio.  Gold leaf was also added to the bead trim around each panel giving it a finished look.  That small but important element is being recreated this week by another craftsman.

Pretyman had a fascinating career, and designed a number of significant interiors in Chicago before returning to his native England in the 1890s.  As part of the dedication of the restored parlor on Friday October 14, museum docent John Waters will present a look at the life and career of this important but largely forgotten designer.   Since all of his other Chicago commissions have been lost, the parlor wall covering will serve as the only surviving link to Pretyman’s years in Chicago.

Next week:   The William Morris draperies