Museum Director Musings: A New Gilded Age?

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the very best aspects of being the museum director at the Homestead is working with a group of very talented and dedicated paid staff members, who collectively are integral to the success of our institution.

This is a book of German-made gold leaf sheets used by gilders, including our newly “minted” expert, Facilities Coordinator Robert Barron.

One of my colleagues, Robert Barron, our facilities coordinator who has been with us as a staff member since 2000 (and a volunteer before that), recently returned from Mt. Carroll, Illinois, in the northwestern part of the “Land of Lincoln” near the Iowa border, where he was one of six people who learned the complicated art of gilding (the process of applying gold leaf or gold paint as decorative ornaments) at the International Preservation Studies Center (formerly the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies.)

Robert, who has previously undergone training at the Center for stone, masonry and plaster restoration, studied with Hubert Baija, Senior Conservator of Frames and Gilding at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, one of the best-known art museums in the world.  Under the tutelage of Baija, Robert spent long, but exciting, days learning all about the rigorous process of working with gold leaf and paint.

This demonstration frame shows several steps and types of the gilding process which Robert learned in his course work.

The details are remarkable, but highly technical, so suffice to say that Robert has learned how to work on such historic elements at the Homestead as the gilt lettering that was utilized on crypts in the 1920s in the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum at El Campo Santo Cemetery; the gilt corbels in La Casa Nueva, the Temple family’s home here, which was completed in 1927; and the circa 1876 gold painted frame for an oil painting of William Workman (the painting was unfortunately stolen in the early 1970s, so we have a reproduction from a decade later) that hangs in the Main Hall of that home.

This is a detail of another demonstration frame showing appliques, finishes and other elements of gilding work Robert learned to do while in Illinois.

These skills are not only a valuable addition to the palette of restoration tools and abilities that Robert has developed over the years, but will save the Homestead and its owner and funder, the City of Industry, a considerable amount of money.  For example, in soliciting estimates for redoing the aforementioned mausoleum crypt lettering we received estimates of up to $50 per character.  Robert, however, will be able to do the same work for far less.

At this point, we are talking with Robert about how he can do some public demonstrations of gilding restoration, perhaps as early as our Ticket to the Twenties festival on October 1 and 2.  So, keep in touch with us because getting such a golden (!) opportunity is rare!

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