Text by Katie Gerfen
The research for the restoration took nearly two years, almost twice the length of the actual construction period that followed. The effort was focused on re-creating the space as it was in 1837, when Soane died; it’s the key date for all restoration of the museum, as stipulated in the Act of Parliament that gifted it to the country. The architects and historians consulted the museum’s archives, which included engravings of the rooms that were prepared for an illustrated 1835 catalog. One such engraving of the Model Room is so detailed that “the pictures can be identified by this drawing,” says JHA partner Lyall Thow. “It would have been done by someone in Soane’s office, so Soane would have been standing over him looking at him drawing it saying, ‘Show this and show that.’ ” The team also consulted Soane’s own writings and the museum curators’ records.
Until 2008, these curators used the private rooms either as their home or office, and some made substantive changes. Varnish had been applied to the perimeter of the wood floors (specifically, to the areas left exposed around large area rugs), wallpaper had been painted over (and over), architraves and elevations had been reworked, and entire rooms had been reconfigured. Nearly two centuries’ worth of alterations needed to be undone while the rest of the museum was still functioning—not just the public areas on the lower floors, but also the offices on the level above—providing no small logistical challenge.
Helpfully, the cost of materials spurred many of the past renovators to reuse Soane’s original materials. (When curator James Wilde carried out the most extensive retrofit in 1889, he removed doors and partitions and reused them in new cabinetry and decorative elements.) This allowed the restoration team to reclaim many original materials and return them to their rightful places, rather than having to resort to replication. But, Thow says, “if the archive and the drawings don’t tell you everything, sometimes you have to step into the mind of what he was trying to achieve.”
The result is a faithful return to Soane’s original vision. “I love to think of him not being able to sleep and wandering around the model stand,” Thow says. “It’s so interesting that he chose to sleep almost among his collection—he was so passionate about architecture.”
Furniture Restorers: Arlington Conservation