Written by Heritage Interpreter, Bailey Roberts
December, as usual, was the busiest time for the Barker Mansion. Decorated with trees in every room, smiles of visitors, the Mansion never feels more alive than during the holidays. January has always been the month of recovery, starting the new year by polishing the wood and silver, which the mansion has no shortage of, to keep us busy and ready for the summer months. But this year, we are telling a much different story. From January 20th all the way to March 1st, the Barker Mansion will be closed. Unfortunately, you did hear me right, closed.
While this may not seem ideal for our many guests and visitors, this break is much needed. If you have visited us recently, you’ll notice the amount of work that is being done currently. Many rooms and whole portions of the house have been under construction as restoration of the mansion’s plaster is reaching its peak.
This is something that has been long overdue. Ever since Jessica Rosier took over the mansion as Director a couple of years ago, the Mansion has experienced more and more people coming through the door. The increased foot traffic means more body heat and increased vibrations on the second and third doors which affect the ceilings below them. Plaster has cracked over time but stayed in place (thankfully). When Emily Reth took the mantle of directorship from Jessica, she came in with a vision. Last year we still had a wonderful increase in tourism, but the weather hasn’t been kind to the Mansion’s structure. We had a record amount of water seepage, ice dams and the like which has led us to take dramatic action. Which brings us here to this moment where history is being preserved for the first time a long time.
So, what are we going to be doing during this upcoming month, you may ask? Well, let me share some projects that we will be taking on. Currently, the Master bedroom and the Morning room are being updated. The ceilings have been stripped so we can reinforce the ceilings with newer plaster using more modern methods. The rooms look like a very respectful tornado came through, moving things around to new places. Plastic hangs from ceilings and walls, plaster dust coats the floors and paper walkways trail through the halls. At first, when Emily took me on a walk-through of the progress, my heart was racing faster than I thought it could. I was stressed, anxious, and internally freaking out at seeing how everything looked. But as I continue to walk through, I can’t help but feel relieved. I am excited to see what’s going to happen, what is going to come of the new restorations. I am proud to be here seeing this progress be made. This is a new chapter in our history, and I am anxious for its outcome.
The next big step after the second floor will be the Foyer and the drawing room, hence the need to close the mansion. The intricate, beautiful ceilings which have captivated many people upon their first entry will be getting a major facelift. If everything goes right, all that will need to be done is apply adhesive to the cracking sections of plaster, lift them up and reapply some plaster to make them stick together again. But if this proves to be too difficult, and the plaster is too heavy, then a big step will need to be taken. The entire ceiling will need to be replaced. When Emily told me that the entire ceiling might have to be stripped with new molds crafted, I about panicked. These ceilings were our pride, lasting 110 years to still be here today. That is still a point of anxiety, but I know that the product if it comes to that, will be done right. My co-worker TJ and I went to the University of Illinois two years ago because they have all the mansion blueprints in their archives. We were fortunate enough to recover blueprints of the plaster ceilings in those rooms. We will be able to create an exact reproduction of the ceiling if it has to come to that.
While the reproduction is taking place, the staff here at the mansion will have the meticulous duty of cleaning and creating new environments for the artifacts to be preserved in. For the first time, the artifacts will be getting a gritty cleaning, going over every little detail as much as possible. The giant candelabras that flank the main fireplace in the foyer are also going to get a deep cleaning, meaning we get to take Q-tips to clean every nook in the silver. While many people would see this as boring and pain-staking I see it as a new adventure. It’s a privilege to be able to handle these artifacts for the Barker Mansion and make them accessible to the public’s view. History should be accessible as possible for everybody to learn from. Being involved in that process is an honor. And because of that, while we clean the artifacts, I will be taking a photograph of every single artifact we go through and writing a synopsis of each one. In the end, I will place our findings in a binder to be a new, updated inventory for the staff and public to use. We get a lot of questions about some of our artifact, and a lot of them can be quite unique and esoteric, often leaving us stumbling and needed to learn more. By doing this, the staff will be better equipped to provide more answers and let the public be able to learn even more about our history through the lens of the objects stored within our walls.
This month will prove to be difficult and quite the learning experience for all of us. History is a fragile subject which can open doors to vibrant growth. The mansion is a local history which offers worldly goods. No history is too small nor too big. Coming up on my second year as a Heritage Interpreter the mansion has become a home. And like any home, it needs to be taken care of. It will be a lot of work, but it will be the best time I’ve had. This hands-on approach to history is why I want to do history. My favorite thing, at the end of all this, will not be the work being out in, but the outcome of it and letting everyone see what we’ve done. My favorite part of history is seeing how people react to it. I look forward to seeing you all in a month.