Conservation of Capitals at Millford

Fig. 1. Scaffolding at Millford erected for work on the Corinthian capitals.

Fig. 2. Detail work began initially on the southernmost capital.

Recent conservation work on the Corinthian capitals of Millford’s monumental colonnade has brought to light new discoveries and with it, new excitement.  Michael Phelps, an historic restoration specialist, began work on the capitals in early  2017 following his earlier fabrication of replacement shutters for Millford and sensitive stabilization and repair of the original water tower in 2016.  Upon surveying the capitals, Michael mused that it appeared that no serious repair or restoration work had been done on these since they were first installed between 1839-1841 — which is both the good news and not so good news!

First, scaffolding was erected to give Michael the opportunity to get a bird’s eye (or more accurately bat’s eye) view of the condition of the carved capitals (Fig. 1). The initial work began on the southernmost column, which had maximum exposure to the elements and therefore had suffered the most over the years (Fig. 2).

[Continued from the Summer Newsletter.]

After the careful removal of bat feces, mudwasp nests, cobwebs, feathers and the detritus of 175 years (Fig. 3 a, b), Michael began the painstaking process of disassembling the numerous applied carved elements (Fig. 4 a, b) that form the capital and carefully recording their positions on the original coopered wooden drum that encases the uppermost part of the column.  This coopered drum was bound with iron bands and capped with a flat bluestone – also likely quarried in the North – to spread the downward load of the massive frieze across the full diameter of the column (Fig. 5 and 6) Michael commented  that the design and manufacture of the capital was extremely complex.

Fig. 3 (a). Detritus found in the capitals.

Fig. 3 (b). Mudwasp nest found in the capitals.

Fig. 4 (a). Carved elements carefully removed from the capital.

Fig. 4 (b). Detail of carved elements removed from the capital.

Each individual element was not only hand-carved but also had to be applied to the coopered drum sequentially in order to fit together with its neighboring element to form the finished Corinthian capitals. After working on the first capital, Michael conjectured that perhaps the capitals may have been fabricated in the Northeast by specialists in architectural carving and shipped to Millford for assembly.

Fig. 5. Detail of capital showing iron band around the coopered drum.

Fig. 6. Coopered drum at top of capital with flat bluestone on top.

Fig. 7. Mitred top molding of capital with new wood to replace rotted sections.

Michael observed  the nails used to attach the applied carved elements may have contributed over time to the deterioration of the wood – the moisture that condensed on the nails soaked into the surrounding wood and ultimately caused dry rot. Phelps attempted to preserve and re-use as much of the original materials as possible but some elements were too deteriorated to save (Fig. 7).  Before reattaching the decorative carved elements back on the drum, he sealed the wood for water resistance, followed by a primer and two coats of oil based paint to match the original color.

From his observation of well-preserved elements on the protected back side of the capital, as well as earlier work on the  two smaller Corinthian capitals and columns in antis at the front entrance to the house (Fig. 8), Michael discovered what appeared to be the original surface treatment of the capitals, which were painted gray and speckled with black and white pigments and grains of sand to give the appearance of the Rhode Island granite that forms the base of the front columns, the door threshold and the window sills (Fig. 9).

Fig. 8. Two smaller Corinthian capitals and columns at the front entrance of Millford.

Fig. 9. Original speckled paint surface treatment found on the back of a decorative element from the capital.

The wood used for the carved capital has been identified by microanalysis as Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), which is common to the northern United States. Pigment analysis of the original painted surfaces of the capitals is currently underway.

Work on the colonnade is expected to extend into early 2018, with the results, based on Michael’s excellent work to date, destined to be every bit as spectacular as the Corinthian capitals that are the crowning glory of Millford. Stay tuned!  (Fig. 10 and 11).

Fig. 10. Corinthian capital before conservation.

Fig. 11. Corinthian capital after conservation.


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