Panoramic view of the reconstructed vegetable shed from Detroit Central Market on April 10, 2022. The entrance that originally faced south is front and center in this view. / Compiled from two photographs taken by Debra A. Reid
The vegetable shed from Detroit Central Market, opening this week in Greenfield Village, provides the perfect opportunity to be a building detective! You can practice your powers of observation as you explore this open-sided structure. In the process, you can become a more informed observer of the built environment around you.
The following highlights should whet your appetite to learn more about this “shed.” Originally, it sheltered vendors who helped feed hungry Detroiters for more than 30 years, from April 1861 to February 1894. Then it spent 110 years on the upper end of Belle Isle sheltering horses, operating as a public riding stable, and as a storage facility for the City of Detroit. The Henry Ford acquired it in 2003, saving it from demolition. Then, between 2003 and 2021, we conducted research and raised funds to reconstruct it in Greenfield Village. Now you can explore the reconstructed Detroit Central Market shed starting its new life in the heart of Greenfield Village.
Is This Building a Reconstruction?
Rudy Christian, a traditional timber-frame expert and principal of Christian & Son, Inc., describes the Detroit Central Market shed as a reconstruction. He bases this on his experiences dismantling the structure in 2003, advocating for use of original materials and prepping the timber-frame elements, and reassembling the roof system during reconstruction in Greenfield Village during 2021.
The Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) first defined “reconstruction” in 1978 as “the act or process of reproducing by new construction the exact form and detail of a vanished building, structure, or object, or a part thereof, as it appeared at a specific period of time” (Federal Register, Vol. 43, No. 236, December 7, 1978, page 57251). You can read more about the DOI’s standards for the treatment of historic buildings and landscapes here, including more about reconstruction and the other three standards: preservation (when the property retains distinctive materials and thus conveys historic significance without extensive repair or replacement), restoration (removal of features to return a property to an appearance of a particular time in the past), and rehabilitation (retention of a property’s historic character, but modifications may occur given ongoing use).
What Percentage of the Building Is Original?
The Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, while “new construction,” is authentic because of the significant percentage of original material incorporated into the reconstruction. Fifty percent of the columns (16 of 32) are original. The 16 originals are distinctive because of acanthus-leaf details on the bases, a spiral design, and capitals onto which cast S-scroll leaf ornaments are mounted.
Architectural S-scroll leaf ornament from the Detroit Central Market, 1860. / THF177806
These original cast-iron columns, however, are brittle. It is impossible to calculate their tensile strength—that is, the maximum stress that the cast iron can stand when being stretched or pulled before breaking. Modern code requires structural materials to meet tensile-strength specifications. This posed a significant challenge.
How Can We Meet Modern Building Codes with an Historic Structure?
The facilities team at The Henry Ford contracted with O’Neal Construction, Inc., of Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the reconstruction of the Detroit Central Market building. They were involved in all phases of the planning process and oversaw reconstruction from 2021 to its completion. The team considered different options to support the building, but ultimately selected an innovative solution that exceeds code requirements. In effect, the solution involved flipping the structural support upside down.
Ensuring guest safety required construction of an underground “moment frame” that anchors the structure and prevents it from acting like a huge umbrella on a windy day. The above screenshot shows the system of rebar that runs between the 48-inch-deep footers. The footers extend up to octagonal bases, or piers. These footers also accommodate modern infrastructure—specifically, electrical conduit that runs underground and up into the piers. All 32 columns are attached to the individual piers with anchor bolts, but 16 of the 32 columns are steel and specially designed extensions of the moment frame. As a whole, the moment frame ensures that the structure will remain on the ground and standing in perpetuity.
The entrance that originally faced north on April 10, 2022, now behind Hanks Silk Mill in Greenfield Village. There are original columns at both sides of the side-entrance gable, but rows of specially designed columns, integral to the moment frame, visible to both the left and right of this side-entrance. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
The 16 new columns are distinctive from the originals in several ways. They are smooth, not spiral. They have fluted gussets (brackets) at the top, instead of capitals. Finally, they are larger in diameter than the originals. These distinctions make clear which columns are original and which are not, to inform guests of the innovation required to ensure their safety.
How Does the New Footprint Compare to the Original?
What was originally the west entrance, now facing State Street in Greenfield Village, on April 10, 2022, with original columns as well as additional columns installed in two rows in front of the structure. This gives guests a better impression of the original building footprint, though an additional eight columns would be required to mimic the full original size of 11 bays and 242 feet in length. /Photograph by Debra A. Reid
The reconstructed vegetable shed is 7/11ths as long as the original. Why 7/11ths? The original structure was three bays wide by eleven bays long. A bay is the space between architectural elements. You can see the eleven bays visible on the south side of the structure in the detail below from a late-1880s photograph—five bays from the east-facing entrance to the south-facing entrance, with that entrance bay being the sixth bay, and then five bays beyond it to the west-facing entrance (less easy to see given the perspective). The Central Market building towers in the distance.
Detail of the vegetable shed from the Detroit Central Market, circa 1888. / THF200604
The reconstructed Detroit Central Market vegetable shed in Greenfield Village includes only seven of the eleven original lengthwise bays—three on each side of the side-entrance bay. Thus, the reconstruction is 7/11ths the length of the original. Jim McCabe, former collections manager and buildings curator at The Henry Ford, deserves credit for this specification, as he spent nearly two decades working on the project between 2003 and 2022.
The reconstruction is true to the width of the original, three bays total—one on each side of the central entrance, which is also a bay. You can see these bays most clearly in this July 6, 2021, photograph below, showing columns in place and the roof structure in process.
Detroit Central Market reconstruction in process on July 6, 2021, showing the three-bay width and the seven-bay length. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
How Much of the Timber-Frame Roof Is Original?
The timber-framing system is clearly visible inside the structure. Just walk in and look up! Approximately 80% of the original old-growth white pine was reused in the reconstruction. This resulted from careful detective work during the quick dismantling process.
The Henry Ford contracted with Christian & Son, Inc., to number and measure the original structural and decorative woodwork elements, photograph them, and prep the material for storage. Then we contracted with Jeff DuPilka and West Shore Services, Inc., to disassemble the structure. West Shore, Christian & Son, and staff from The Henry Ford accomplished this in 10 to 12 weeks during the summer of 2003.
Woodwork in one of four outside corners, original to the vegetable shed at Detroit Central Market and still intact after it served as the riding stable at Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan (photographed in 2003). / THF113493
Christian & Son, Inc., documented all original wooden elements, including those in the section of the building that was fire-damaged due to a car wreck (visible in the photograph below). They believed that documenting the whole required documentation of all parts, so they took as much care tagging, measuring, and dismantling this burned section as they did with the other sections. In fact, timbers from the charred section were reused in the reconstruction and are visible on the exterior of the originally east-facing entrance (the entrance now facing the Detroit Toledo & Milwaukee Roundhouse in Greenfield Village).
West Shore Services, Inc., crane in action, removing a piece of the original timber-frame roof system from the former riding stable (and originally the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed) on Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, 2003. / THF113575
What Are Some Notable Details?
The reconstruction of the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed in Greenfield Village includes ornamental woodwork throughout. The following rendering by architecture firm Quinn Evans itemizes seven distinctive brackets, each designed for a specific location in the building, and one “drop,” an accessory at all four gable entrances and used with the decorative fascia along the eaves.
Decorative wood details of the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, prepared by Quinn Evans, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for The Henry Ford. / Courtesy of The Henry Ford’s facilities team
These decorative elements were all hand-carved during the original construction in 1860. Not all of the decorative elements survived the move to Belle Isle. The elaborate crests atop each of the four gable entrances on the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed, for example, were not included when it served as the horse shed on Belle Isle, as the illustration of it in Seventy Glimpses of Detroit indicates. Missing pieces were replicated to complete the structure’s appearance during its heyday as a public market.
Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village & Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford, starting to inventory architectural elements from the Detroit Central Market vegetable shed not used in the reconstruction, February 8, 2022. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid
What Style Is the Building?
Each of the ornamental elements was part of a stylistic whole that the reconstruction faithfully conveys. If it reminds you of a Swiss chalet, you have an astute eye for style. John Schaffer, the architect, trained in Munich, Bavaria, and incorporated Schweizerstil (Swiss-chalet style) details into his plans, drafted in 1860. Thus, this structure likely introduced that aesthetic to Detroiters. His plans included gently sloping gabled roofs with wide eaves, large brackets, and decorative fretwork, all details common to Swiss-style architecture. Additional Swiss features included sawtooth siding, scroll-sawn fascia, and the elliptical design of the siding at each gable-end.
The Detroit Central Market vegetable shed has so much to teach. Learning to read the details of this addition to Greenfield Village is an important first step on the journey. Learn even more by checking out additional blog posts and artifacts related to Detroit Central Market.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Comments from Rachel Yerke, Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford, improved this post.
Unknown artist, “Lady in a Lace Bonnet,” located in Robert Frost Home in Greenfield Village, before conservation. / Photo by Marlene Gray
The same painting, after conservation. / Photo by Marlene Gray
It is that time again, as Greenfield Village opens this week for another exciting season! While you were away, staff at The Henry Ford have been busily cleaning and repairing objects throughout the village buildings. During the winter months, conservation staff move artifacts in need of repair back to our labs for a bit of TLC. Some of these objects are on full display while others hardly ever get the spotlight. One of the latter objects is a painting rarely seen by visitors.
View of Robert Frost Home with the parlor on the right. / THF1883
Within the Porches and Parlors district of Greenfield Village is the home of American poet Robert Frost. Originally located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the house was moved to the village by Henry Ford in the 1930s. As you enter the house, a parlor is on the immediate right. If you look inside on the left, you will see a frame on the wall. There hangs a portrait of a woman, “Lady in a Lace Bonnet.” During routine maintenance, our dedicated clean team noticed the painting had some paint losses, which you typically find with old paintings. The paint losses at the top and bottom of the painting were the most obvious. These types of losses can occur when the painting is roughly handled during framing.
Image courtesy of clean team member Teresa McCloud, who noted the damage.
Conservation staff then brought the artwork to the lab to give this hidden painting some much needed attention. Once the painting was removed from the frame, the next step was a good cleaning. Paintings trap abrasive dust and debris, both on the canvas behind and the painted surface. After vacuuming to remove the larger debris, a very mild cleaning agent was used to remove the surface grime collected over the years. What a drastic change that made!
Grime cleaning, with right side cleaned. / Photo by Marlene Gray
Still, the portrait had a yellow tint, visible in the sitter’s face, which is a tell-tale sign of an aged varnish. Various solvents were tested to see what worked best at removing the old varnish, and we selected one that did not cause harm to the paint surface. After the varnish was removed, the portrait looked much brighter and fresher.
Varnish removal, with left side cleaned. / Photo by Marlene Gray
Once our lady was cleaned, it was time to tackle the paint losses. Color-matching the surrounding paint is tricky and takes patience to get right, but when we do, it is so rewarding to see the complete image. Last but certainly not least, a new coat of varnish with stabilizers that resist the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation was added to protect the painting from light from the window on the other side of the parlor.
After securing the painting back inside the frame (being sure not to scratch the surface), we whisked it back to Frost home, tucked into its “hidden” spot. Now you know what hangs on the wall, and you may even be able to get a little peek from outside the parlor window on your next visit. The lady will be happy to show off her fresh appearance!
“Lady in a Lace Bonnet” returned home. / Photo by Marlene Gray
Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village. / THF1914
Guests visiting Greenfield Village in the spring of 2001 encountered a newly transformed Ackley Covered Bridge. The landmark structure—one of the most recognizable, most photographed sites on the grounds—had been completely repaired and restored. While the bridge’s resurrection may have seemed to have happened miraculously, it was—as with all our restoration efforts—the result of meticulous planning and careful completion of a well-defined project.
Originally constructed in 1832 in southwestern Pennsylvania, the single-span, 80-foot bridge’s design dates back to 16th-century Italy and was adapted in a uniquely American way in the early 1800s. It is referred to as a multiple kingpost truss: a series of upright wooden posts, with all braces inclined from the abutments and leaning towards the center of the “kingpost.”
Ackley Covered Bridge was originally a community project, built by more than 100 men on land owned and with materials donated by brothers Daniel and Joshua Ackley. By the mid-1930s, it had fallen into serious disrepair, and when a modern bridge was constructed to replace it, the granddaughter of one of the builders purchased the hundred-year-old Ackley structure for about $25 and donated it to Henry Ford.
Simple and classic in its construction, the bridge was dismantled at its original location in late 1937 and shipped by rail to Dearborn. Modifications were made to ensure its longevity, and a number of basic preservation chores were undertaken in the six months between its arrival and the completion of reconstruction in July 1938. (You can view photos of the bridge’s reconstruction and dedication in our Digital Collections.)
Ackley Covered Bridge after reconstruction in Greenfield Village, June 30, 1938. / THF625902
“Even in the 1930s, the Ackley Covered Bridge was clearly an architectural treasure, and Ford and his designers knew its importance and placed it at the heart of the Village,” said Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, architectural consultant for the restoration project. The bridge was back in its prime, spanning a pond designed specifically for it.
Taking photographs near Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, 1958. / THF625878
“Unfortunately, the pond was standing rather than flowing water, and the water level had the ability to rise and fall,” she said. “The chords and four end trusses of the bridge (basically, its feet) were exposed to extreme wet/dry cycles, and rot was imminent. By 1974 the bridge was structurally unsound, and dangerous.”
While repairs were undertaken then, nothing was done to regulate the level of the pond, and by the spring of 1999, one truss end was found to be rotting. Closer examination revealed that the bridge was once again structurally unsafe.
Alec Jerome, then part of the facilities management team he now leads at The Henry Ford, was designated as project leader to bring Ackley Covered Bridge back to stability. David Fischetti, a historical structural engineer from North Carolina with a background in covered bridges, was brought in to develop a plan to properly restore the bridge, and Arnold Graton of New Hampshire, one of the country’s leading covered bridge timberwrights, was selected to lead the stabilization and restoration work.
“First,” said Jerome, “the pond had to be drained to expose areas that needed repair. The conditions that we discovered led to some serious revisions in our original project plan—every beam touching the ground was rotting and needed to be replaced.”
Views showing restoration of Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, September and October 2000. / THF628587, THF628611, THF628525
The dry rot portion of the original trusses was removed and new support beams were spliced on. The refurbished trusses were then seated on stainless steel plates to prevent moisture from wicking up into the wood. Also, a turnbuckle system was implemented in the upper beams of the bridge, which had become separated over time, to ensure stability. Many of the connectors holding the bridge beams together were replaced, and ultimately a bolster was laid to eliminate any conditions that would promote rot in the floor beams and allow that devastating wet/dry cycle of rot to begin again.
“Our main concerns were the extensive amount of rot over and above the original expectations, the short time period between Village programs in which we had to complete the work, and weather conditions getting in our way,” Jerome said. Work began the day after Old Car Festival in September, and lasted through the day before the start of the evening program, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the second week of October. “The project could not have been completed without the assistance of the Museum’s carpentry department and our welder,” Jerome said. “These people assisted with every facet of this restoration.” See more photographs from the restoration project in our Digital Collections.
According to conservator Sickels-Taves, research determined that Ackley Covered Bridge was the oldest multiple kingpost truss bridge and the sixth-oldest covered bridge in the nation. While the cost of its restoration after a century and a half of decline was substantial, its preservation for the future was priceless—without such key commitments of resources, important structures like Ackley Covered Bridge would be lost forever. “The bridge is unquestionably important,” Sickels-Taves said. “We should be proud, and not hesitate to brag that we are the steward of one of the earliest forms of original American architecture.”
A version of this post originally ran in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue of The Henry Ford’s former publication, Living History. It was edited for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Textiles are some of the least durable artifacts that we have in the collections of The Henry Ford. Early textiles are usually made from the “big four”—cotton, linen, silk, and wool. All these materials can disintegrate, be eaten by insects, make homes for mice, and be degraded by mold and mildew. In addition, heat and light affect the color and the integrity of the fabrics. Here at the museum, we are fortunate to have a representative sampling of garments and textiles from the 18th century to modern times.
What We Know about Our Suit
Even though we don’t know who wore the suit or exactly when, it still directs us to a point in time.
This suit has no known provenance (specific history), having been acquired from Anna Brix, an antiques dealer who lived in Philadelphia. The suit is believed to be French or British, but we have no records linking it to a person or even a family. We don’t know exactly when it was made, but this style lasted through the 18th century. By comparing it with similar garments, we can agree that it was probably worn for the first time in the late 18th century. We can tell it is a late-18th-century jacket because the fit is slim, the front is worn unbuttoned and curves to the back, and overall the cut is shorter than in previous decades. It was likely worn to court, or at least to very formal occasions. A suit such as this would have been worn with a highly decorated waistcoat, silk stockings, a cotton or linen shirt with fancy cuffs, and a jabot (frill or ruffle). The back has dual tails and three vents, making it easier and more stylish to wear when mounted on a horse. The colors are all natural dyes and have held up well with age.
Close-up of embroidery. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
The Making of the Suit Coat
Suits such as this were made to attend court and other high occasions, often mere days before they were needed. Hence, the use of embroidered panels, which reduced the time the tailor needed.
Embroidered panel for a different waistcoat, uncut. / From the collections of Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (1962-54-31)
The coat is made of silk taffeta and was embroidered before the suit was made with silk threads using French knots, satin stitch, and stem stitch. Well-to-do men would visit a merchant to select a color and embroidery pattern, often from the shelf. The merchant would then coordinate with a tailor to custom-make the suit. The embroidered fabric, shown in the example above, even included embroidered rounds that would be crafted into fabric covered buttons by the tailor.
Showing cut to shorten jacket at the top right of the pocket. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
The embroidered silk was originally made for a taller man than ours. If you look carefully at the image above, you can see where the embroidery was shortened at pocket height. It is blunt cut—sometimes the embroiderers were brought in to camouflage the adjustment and make it less visible, but not in this case. This is the normal position for a height adjustment, as when the wearer stood with their hands clasped in front of them, the seam was covered.
Embroidery on buttons on back of coat. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Additional piecing is visible on the back of the garment at the top of the side vents where curved embroidered pieces back the accent buttons.
Discovering the Secrets of the Suit
Being able to look closely at the suit, both inside and out, was a rare treat.
Markings from original button placement are visible above top of cuff; also, the slightly lighter color of silk shows the depth of lengthening. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Upon closer examination, the outside of the suit tells us even more. The jacket sleeves have been made about two inches longer. There is less wear above the cuff and pin pricks can be seen where the buttons were originally located. It is interesting that the cuffs both show significant wear at the bottom from before and after remodeling.
The knee breeches were refitted to accommodate a larger person. Each side seam was let out, and there, similar to above the coat cuffs, you can see lighter silk with less wear. Finally, the back of the breeches have a wedge of silk inserted to give more room. Small areas of stress at the waist and the drop flap were mended to provide strength, but the breeches are in good condition structurally.
Weighted Silk Is Fragile
Silk has a long and harrowing history, and this suit is a good example of why the use of weighted silk has been greatly reduced in the last century.
Shattered silk at the right shoulder and collar. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
We estimate that the coat was relined in the mid-to-late 1800s, as the lining was shattered throughout because it was made using weighted silk. Then and now, silk was sold by weight. When raw silk is processed, up to 30% of its weight is lost when the sericin (the protein that holds silkworm cocoons together) is cleaned from the tough but delicate fibers. Manufacturers compensate for that loss by adding metal salts to the silk, which adhere to the fabric, causing it to weigh more. What they didn’t know then is that this will forever damage the fabric. Shattered silk cannot be repaired and continues to disintegrate with age. The practice of weighting was regulated by the Federal Trade Commission in 1938 to require labeling of silks containing more than 10% metal salts (15% for silk colored black).
The suit’s shattered lining was in poor condition (see image above) and we decided that it should be replaced with modern, non-weighted silk in a matching color. This also allowed us to see what was inside the garment—where the story continues.
A Rare Treat: Viewing the Inside
Seeing the internal structure produced answers and questions.
A quilt of patches, buckram, and pocket provides insight into the speed with which the coat was made. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Suits such as these were often hastily made. The outside was sumptuously beautiful with even, neat stitches, but the inside, not so much! The inside would never be seen.
It took many hours to extract the lining from the suit. The stitches that attached the lining to the coat were exceptionally fine and firm. Removing them took small scissors, tweezers, and, at times, a magnifying glass. With the lining separated from the jacket, more interesting things were revealed. It isn’t often that you get to see the original inner-workings of an 18th-century tailor’s creation (see image above).
Mildew and fibers from wear prior to vacuuming. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
One thing that was immediately noticeable was that the light blotches on the outside of the garment were caused by mildew. At some point, the suit was stored in a humid environment. The mildew was an old problem, since our museum storage is climate controlled, but the residue still had to be removed. Since a liquid cleaner could not be applied to the silk, the inside of the coat was vacuumed through a screen, then a stubby paintbrush was used to lift mildew spores before vacuuming again. This treatment made a noticeable difference in appearance.
Buckram stiffens the inside of the front of the coat. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Inside we see the use of buckram as a stiffener around the edges of the front, much as interfacing would be used today. Buckram was and is made of a coarse hemp, linen, or cotton fabric. The buckram was pieced, perhaps because it was scraps, or perhaps that was how wide the fabric was. Cream-colored silk had been sewn over the buckram from the pocket level to the collar, possibly to reduce friction between the silk and the stiffening fabric (see below).
The left shoulder linen tow shoulder pad covered with the original silk. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Linen tow was used as padding to create the sloped shoulder shape popular in the late 18th century. This linen waste is full of bits of the stem of the flax plant and it has held together and done its job for over 200 years. The tow was—and is—partially covered by the original white silk lining.
A History Mystery
Anytime we deal with historic objects, there are often more questions than answers. It is interesting to try to suss out the “why?” and apply what we know to arrive at possible solutions. However, some mysteries will always remain mysteries.
Squiggles on the right pocket—partially for mending, but they beg the question, why? / Photo by Joan Sheridan
The stitching used inside the coat is often coarse. A larger thread was used to bind seams, keep the shoulder pads in place, and attach silk to the buckram. Inside is a patchwork of fabric. The linen pocket linings revealed another interesting find. Both pockets had holes that were inexpertly darned with a snakelike pattern that continues from the darning. We can surmise that the original wearer of the suit was right-handed because the right pocket is very stained—by tobacco or a handkerchief, perhaps?
Replacing the Lining
The lining adds support to the garment, transferring stress to itself and away from the fragile and elaborate embroidery and construction.
Pattern making from the shattered silk lining. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Once removed, the fragile lining was separated into pieces to be used for making a new pattern. From the pattern a polyester sample lining was made and fitted into the jacket. Adjustments were noted on the paper pattern and revisions made until it was as close as it could be. Polyester is not a substitute for silk, as it behaves differently, but it did serve a purpose—knowing that the pattern was close enough.
Small tools and thread are less likely to damage the delicate fabric. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
With the modified pattern in hand, the cream silk was cut and sewn in with a few minor modifications. The lining was attached using a long blind stitch, unlike the original whip stitching. Changing the stitch type reduced the number of holes that had to be put into the garment, and fewer stitches mean less damage to the original green fabric.
The finished collar and newly lined coat, before pressing. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
With the body lining sewn in, the neck lining was next. The edge of the collar was quite worn and treatment was required. A piece of bronze tulle (fine netting) was sewn to the outside edge of the collar next to the main body of embroidery, but not over it. It was then stretched over the damaged area and attached to the inside of the collar. The collar lining was cut freehand because the original is in many pieces. Once the lining was in place, the tulle mend became nearly invisible.
Finishing the Work
The sleeves are very of-the-period. They are curved in shape and tell the story of a suit that was worn often and remodeled in its second life. The sleeve remodeling was likely done at the time the lining was replaced in the mid-1800s.
Two levels of wear are evident on the sleeves./ Photo by Joan Sheridan
Conservation Specialist Claire Zimmeth completed the project by mending the sleeves and sewing in the sleeve lining. Since there was damage at the end of the original sleeve length and at the end of the remodeled/current length, it was decided that the entire area should be covered with tulle. Again, the tulle was placed to avoid covering embroidery (see the work-in-progress image below).
Covering the sleeves with tulle (in progress). / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Bringing It All Together
This suit is an excellent example of 18th-century tailoring, style, color, and embroidery talent. It reminds us that court styles didn’t change much over more than a hundred years and didn’t keep up with the current fashions.
Working on this garment was challenging, mainly in that there is always concern about handling fragile, antique textiles. It was a privilege to work on the suit and be able to explore the history of the suit via the wear, stitches, and inner construction. Even though this jacket has no formal provenance, it still has a story to tell. The suit will be on display in the Fashion and Nature exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum from April 23–July 23, 2022.
The Sir John Bennett tower clock. / Photo by The Henry Ford.
The quarter-hour chime of the Sir John Bennett tower clock is a memorable sound that can be heard throughout Greenfield Village, emanating from its four figures—the muse, Gog, Magog, and Father Time (shown right to left above). Early in 2021, Magog’s chime and striking arm developed cracks along the mechanical shoulder.
Recorded damage of Magog’s chiming arm. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.
Disassembly of Magog’s arm prior to cleaning. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.
The arm was disassembled by Conservation Specialist Andrew Ganem, and conservation and curatorial staff were faced with a decision to repair the original arm or to replace it with a replica. One of the major concerns with repair was that new cracks could develop in the already thin (0.04”) sheet metal when Sir John Bennett becomes operable again. After some discussion, we made a decision to replicate and replace the arm to allow for safe operation of the clock, while preserving the original component in storage for future reference.
The replica arm could not be easily replicated using conventional copper metalwork techniques because of its highly textured surface. An easier replication method came from our partners at Ford Motor Company, who proposed the use of 3D scanning and polymer printing. To accomplish this, the original arm was 3D scanned and that data imported into a computer-aided design (CAD) program. The replica arm was then printed using stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing. You can learn more about this type of printing here.
Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.
Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.
Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.
The scanned model of the arm was produced by Daniel Johnson and Kevin Lesperance at Ford Motor Company’s metrology lab.
A side-by-side comparison between the SLA 3D-printed copy on the left and the original artifact on the right. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
The 3D-printed part is tested for fit prior to electroplating by Ford Motor Company’s Erik Riha on left and The Henry Ford’s Andrew Ganem on the right. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
The SLA plastic material wasn’t strong enough to endure continuous use in the outdoor environment of Sir John Bennett’s tower clock, so Ford engineers proposed coating the replica polymer part with nickel and copper layers using electrical deposition. The nickel layer stiffened the print, while the copper layer offered a better surface for painting.
Test for fitting the plated arm onto Magog. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
Holes in the cast iron mount for the arm. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
The use of an appropriate painting system that could endure the outdoor environment in Greenfield Village was imperative. Dr. Mark Nichols of Coatings, Surface Engineering, and Process Modeling Research at Ford Motor Company and Dan Corum of PPG recommended PSX-One (high solids, acrylic polysiloxane.) Amercoat 2/400 was used as a primer, as it provides chemical, environmental, and moisture resistance. The paint colors on the original arm were matched to a color sample and duplicated by Andrew Wojtowicz of PPG.
Original arm, left; 3D-printed arm, right; and Munsell color sample in the middle. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
The primed surface on the shoulder and elbow was coated with oil sizing and gilded with 24-karat gold.
Left to right: SLA-printed replica; copper/nickel/copper-plated SLA replica; copper/nickel/copper-plated SLA replica primed, painted, and gilded, ready for use; and original artifact part for comparison. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
During a test assembly, we noted that the linkage that connects Magog’s arm to the chiming mechanism was too short, so Andrew fabricated an extension and attached it to the original linkage. He also fabricated new hardware for the elbow joint to accommodate the additional thickness of the replacement part.
Extension fabricated by Andrew Ganem. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.
Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
Elbow joint. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
Original and machined hardware. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.
Magog’s clapper for the bell striker required attention by Andrew and The Henry Ford’s welder Chuck Albright, who soldered the joint between the cuff, wrist, and grip for the strike (hammer). A vibration isolator (made from Sorbothane) was inserted to reduce shock between the clapper and the arm during operation.
Separation between the hand and the wrist. / Photo by Cuong Nguyen.
Required surface preparation for a strong solder repair. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.
The size of the fist. / Photo by Andrew Ganem.
Special thanks to Dr. Mark Nichols, Dr. George Luckey, Erik Riha, Daniel Johnson, and Kevin Lesperance at Ford Motor Company, and to Daniel Corum and Andrew Wojtowicz at PPG. The help from Ford Motor Company specialists and their fabrication equipment made the project possible without invasive modifications to the artifact part.
We also extend a grateful thank you to Jason Hayburn, whose generous donation funded the electroforming of the replica.
The Mathematica exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / Photo by KMS Photography
When Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation reopened in July 2020 after months of shutdown because of COVID-19 restrictions, museumgoers were excited to be back on the floor. Many of them were super excited to get back to one of their favorite exhibitions, Mathematica—a favorite because it’s so hands-on.
And therein lay the problem, said Jake Hildebrandt, historic operating machinery specialist at The Henry Ford. As COVID-19 spread, the hands-on interactivity of Mathematica caused it to remain closed. Mixing a little bit of ingenuity, technology, and lots of problem-solving skills, Hildebrandt, along with master craftsman Brian McLean, ensured the exhibition could remain interactive yet hands-free and open to the public.
Mathematica’s Moebius Band was modified by staff from The Henry Ford to start via a hand wave. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo
The push-start buttons on the Moebius Band and Celestial Mechanics installations, for example, are now initiated with a wave of the hand—no touch necessary. And the 27-button panel of the Multiplication Machine has been covered with Plexiglas for safety and new software installed so random math problems run on the cube throughout the day for visitor education and enjoyment.
A newly-added note under the Plexiglas installed on the Multiplication Machine in Mathematica reads “This machine has been temporarily modified for a touch-free experience / It now multiplies random numbers on its own.” The styling of the note is intended to match the original design of Charles and Ray Eames. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo
“Projects like these, DIY challenges that have high criteria, limited time and budget, are my favorite kinds of projects,” said Hildebrandt. All the alterations to Mathematica are easily reversible, he added, and when you head to the museum to see them, you’ll notice the respectful attention given to the exhibition’s classic Eames styling.
Cars are just one type of artifact that have found a good home in our new collections storage facility, the Main Storage Building. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood
With more than 26 million artifacts in our collections at The Henry Ford, storing them all can be a challenge—especially the large industrial, agriculture, and transportation objects. That changed a few years ago, when we began working on an exciting and important project for our institution—the creation of our Main Storage Building, or, as we call it, MSB. Our staff answer a few questions about our newest storage building below.
What is MSB?
MSB is a 400,000-square foot building adjacent to Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Ford Motor Company occupies the front half of the building, while The Henry Ford occupies the rear 200,000 square feet of space. Today, 178,000 square feet of the MSB is used exclusively for collections storage. The remaining space in The Henry Ford’s portion of the building is home to shipping and receiving, our photo studio, office space, and institutional non-collections storage.
This 1936 photo of the Ford Engineering Laboratory building gives a sense of its scale. / THF240744
What is the history of the building?
Built in 1923–1924, the Ford Engineering Laboratory housed Ford Motor Company’s tool design, production engineering, and experimental engineering research departments. Henry Ford and Edsel Ford both had offices there and, throughout Henry’s lifetime, the lab was the true heart of Ford. The facility was expanded and remodeled several times over the years but had been vacant for some time before the agreement between Ford Motor Company and The Henry Ford was reached.
You can view hundreds of photographs and other artifacts related to the history of the Ford Engineering Laboratory in our Digital Collections, and you can learn about the design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the building in this blog post.
Though we only recently acquired the building, this is not the first time our artifacts have been stored at MSB. This 1926 photo shows objects collected for the not-yet-completed Henry Ford Museum being stored in the Ford Engineering Laboratory. / THF124539
How did we acquire our portion of the building?
In 2016, we entered into an agreement with our neighbor, Ford Motor Company, to acquire half of the Ford Engineering Lab building. The contract allows Ford to occupy the front half of the building for office space and their corporate archives, while The Henry Ford occupies the rear 200,000 square feet, now referred to as the Main Storage Building, as full owner of that portion.
The Henry Ford’s collections management staff was very happy to visit MSB on our first day of possession, before any artifacts had been moved in. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood
Why did we decide to consolidate our collections storage?
Like many museums, The Henry Ford has faced challenges in storing and caring for our holdings, especially the large industrial, agriculture, and transportation artifacts that make up much of the collections. For decades, we rented offsite warehouse space to house these materials. With them came problems—poor accessibility, overcrowding, landlord and lease challenges, and an inability to invest appropriately in rental property. We have made huge strides in caring for and preserving our collections by moving into MSB, including improved access, easy-to-maintain storage environments, enhanced security, and a reduction of overcrowding in storage areas.
Pallet racking and thoughtfully packed artifacts allow us to fit tens of thousands of objects, both large and small, into MSB, while ensuring both their safety and ease of access. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood
How did we consolidate our collections storage?
As you might expect, moving tens of thousands of irreplaceable artifacts, many of them large, heavy, and/or fragile, from offsite storage into a new building was a challenge. Learn more about this long and complex process in this blog post.
How much of THF’s collection is housed in MSB?
The MSB represents more than 70 percent of The Henry Ford’s total collections storage space. The building currently holds over 40,000 artifacts, with more than 10,000 of these digitized and available for browsing in our Digital Collections.
Agricultural implements hang from a wire grid within MSB. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood
In MSB we had an opportunity to create a new collections operations workroom that acts as a collective workspace for multiple teams, including collections management, registrars, curatorial, and photography. In the workroom, we see collections items both existing and new to the collection. Types of work include cataloging and numbering (for tracking), creating storage mounts and boxes, and staging for research. We also pack artifacts to lend to other institutions.
Our conservation department utilizes two different lab areas to treat all artifacts requiring attention in the MSB—everything from vehicles to glass. Photography of smaller objects happens in the photo studio in MSB or in the workroom, while large object photography happens throughout the building—meaning our photography team is quite adept at working with a variety of space and other constraints. You can read more about some of our large object photography projects in MSB in this blog post.
Large artifacts such as these might be photographed in or near their storage locations in MSB for maximum digitization efficiency. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood
Beyond this ongoing work, we are still completing our move into the building—all 40,000+ artifacts are being organized, inventoried, and positioned into their permanent locations throughout MSB.
What enhancements are planned for MSB in the future?
As a significant addition to our campus, many enhancements are planned for MSB to optimize the structure for historic collections. Currently, we are continuing important infrastructural work, like roof maintenance and HVAC upgrades, so our collections have appropriate environmental controls to ensure their physical integrity for many years to come.
Once that is complete, we can turn our attention to maximizing our square footage for both access to the collections and issues of density. Specially designed storage furniture called compact shelving helps alleviate wasted aisle space while keeping objects safe and accessible to curators for research, exhibits, and digital uses. As we unpack, this type of storage furniture will allow us to make the most of the 178,000 square feet we have so that we can continue to collect well into the future.
We are so pleased to have this new space and look forward to sharing much more about the work we’re doing and collections we’re housing in MSB!
While we have a photo studio where we do most of our artifact photography using white backgrounds and strictly controlled lighting, many times we encounter things that are too big for this setting—for example, a car! In those cases, we need to take ourselves and our studio on the move, and our newest collections storage building, the Main Storage Building (MSB), gives us a perfect environment for that. While sometimes space can be an issue (there are only so many places you can store dozens of wagons and plows), we make the most of the room we have and get creative in the meantime.
For example, to photograph “The Busy World” automaton wagon, it first needed to be moved out of a row of wagons and into an open space to give us room to set up our lights and camera.
“The Busy World” automaton wagon in storage in MSB before photography. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo
The completed photograph of the automaton. / THF187282
Since the Unimate robot was featured in an episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, we needed to capture new photographs of it for our Digital Collections before the episode aired. While we had a little more room to work when photographing the Unimate (this was before MSB was as full as it is today), we still benefitted from having the ability to set up all around it because it is extremely heavy and cannot be easily moved. We had to use the space around it to access both sides for our standard photography.
Photographing the Unimate. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo
It was a similar situation when we photographed the 1977 Ford Mustang II. Though now this area in MSB houses an array of agricultural equipment, such as plows and wagons, in 2018 we were able to use the open area to photograph the Mustang II for the first time so it could be viewed online.
Photographing the Mustang II. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo
This next example shows a more current look at MSB in 2021. As you might be able to see, there are many more vehicles now occupying the large area where we shot the Unimate and Mustang II. So when we were tasked with the job of photographing a 1925 Yellow Cab, we were unable to circle around it and had to work with our collections management team to move the taxi for us as we documented it.
You can also see that we created our own white background around the cab with tall foamcore boards (a little thing that helps immensely with post-processing in Photoshop). But our “studio” was surrounded by another car to the right and a wagon to the left! All this careful maneuvering and setup was necessary to get the final image.
Final photograph of the 1925 Yellow Cab Taxicab. / THF188014
Looking at the completed image, you probably would never know what it looked like when we were photographing it out on the floor in MSB!
My final example, the Ford COVID-19 mobile testing van,was so tall that it almost reached the ceiling in the tallest room in MSB. Since it’s a full-sized van, it isn’t easy to move—especially inside a building. In case that isn’t enough, its current neighbors in storage happen to be a couple of large fire engines. Regardless, we got creative again and we were able to get photos of the van despite these challenges.
Photographing the Ford COVID-19 mobile testing van. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo
Completed photo of the COVID-19 mobile testing van. / THF188109
Besides being an invaluable space to store an extensive variety of precious artifacts from our collections, MSB also serves as a functional space for us to use as photographers—so we can digitize artifacts even if they’re larger than we can accommodate in our photo studio.
The Henry Ford has nearly 26 million artifacts in its care—on exhibit in 82 buildings, housed in the Benson Ford Research Center archive, and stored in multiple storage areas. Caring for these collections is an endless task—light levels, temperature and humidity variations, programmatic usage, even the nature of the artifacts themselves (many items in our holdings were never designed to last)—all create difficulties from a preservation standpoint. Even the most apparently durable and indestructible seeming artifacts need to be cared for—whether on exhibit or held in storage.
For many years our greatest storage problems related to off-site storage in buildings that were not intended for museum collections and whose distance from campus made access difficult. This situation changed in 2016 when The Henry Ford entered into an agreement with our neighbor, Ford Motor Company, to acquire half of the Ford Engineering Lab, a 400,000-square foot building immediately adjacent to Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
The Henry Ford’s facilities team began a complicated renovation process on the space, newly designated as Main Storage Building (MSB), turning what had been a cubicle warren of offices into a space suitable for storing historic materials. While the process of rehabilitating the building got under way, historical resources staff began determining where to place and how to move a vast range of over 36,000 artifacts—from giant printing presses and steam engines to tiny buttons and toy tea sets.
The first step in the moving process was to identify collections of similar items (for instance, plows) and create an accurate inventory of what was stored offsite. In this early phase of the project, we would gather anything and everything we thought could be part of this grouping, stage it in one area, and check that the accession number (a unique number assigned to every museum artifact that links the object to information and records on the object—essentially, a Social Security number for artifacts) on each item matched the record in our collections management database. When we encountered objects without accession numbers, we considered these “found in collection” items, and assigned them inventory numbers so they could be tracked in the in the future. After all the new records were created and accession numbers verified, we could then track locations using barcodes and scanners.
Implements lined up for inventory. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Vacuum cleaners ready to be packed. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Communications and information technology collections gathered for inventory. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Before packing, we always assess the condition of the artifacts. We look for mold, hazardous materials, or signs of infestation. In most cases, items were vacuumed or dusted before they were packed away, but sometimes they required more attention to mitigate future problems. In these cases, collections were either isolated or cleaned by conservation staff in one of two labs that were set up in the new building before being moved to their final location within MSB.
The conservation team (pre-pandemic) cleans oversized artifacts in our new lab to prepare them for storage in MSB. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
When packing up the collection, we packed similar items together using archival-quality materials. The move team developed a packing system that could be applied to nearly all of our artifacts. This standardization helped us create more space-saving density in the new building, and helped us to move faster, as we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time we encountered a new type of artifact.
Our packing systems were designed to handle both movement and storage, and included these tools and tactics:
Pallet box containers are stackable gray containers that can be filled with small collections, often housed in custom-built boxes that we created.
Flat pallets are used for heavy objects secured to pallets with plastic banding. Sometimes we attach plywood to the top of the pallets to create a flat surface.
Flat pallets with sleeves are used for lightweight objects secured to pallets with Velcro or ties. The pallet is wrapped in a pallet sleeve for additional protection.
Crates. While we don’t build crates in our department, we do repurpose them for use with heavy, difficult, or fragile artifacts.
Soft-packing is wrapping artifacts entirely in soft foam or blankets.
No packing at all is sometimes warranted. Not everything can be packed with packing materials, so such items are carefully strapped onto or into a truck.
Packed collections ready to move, including flat pallets, custom boxes, and pallet boxes. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Our original moving schedule was spread over 24 months—but then came the COVID-19 pandemic. To meet the changing needs and budget of the institution, we streamlined our operations and adapted our process to accommodate additional staff and contractors to move as quickly as possible while maintaining our standard of collections care and keeping staff safe and healthy. Twenty-four months became nine months—nine months in which we processed, packed, and moved over 17,000 artifacts to complete the move out of offsite storage.
While collections operations staff handled the majority of the objects, we relied on help from three types of contractors: professional car movers, rigging experts, and professional art handlers.
Using professional car movers allowed us to move more than one vehicle at a time, which greatly increased our speed.
The Warrior is loaded into a semitruck (pre-pandemic). / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
The rigging experts had bigger forklifts, trucks of all sizes, and cranes for moving our largest objects.
A steam traction engine is lifted onto custom-built dollies to roll out of the offsite warehouse. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Finally, professional art handlers were called on to handle and move furniture from our collection, and to offer extra hands to pack and move glass, ceramics, and communications collections located in the warehouse.
Furniture collections stored in MSB. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
We also mobilized our fellow staff members to accelerate the move. Registrars worked at the warehouse each week for six months, helping us complete the inventory phase of the move and soft-packing what they could along the way. Team members from the conservation department worked on artifacts as they arrived at MSB and also ventured to offsite storage during the final three months of packing to help clean the artifacts before they were packed. Also, we can’t thank our shipping and receiving staff enough for helping offload our non-standard objects. We could have never accomplished our nine-month goal without all of these dedicated staff!
On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, the final artifact made its way from the warehouse to MSB. The core team and all who collaborated were there to witness the 606 Horse Shoe Lounge sign loaded onto our truck for the final journey. The sign belonged to the “oldest and last” remaining nightclub from Detroit’s legendary Paradise Valley neighborhood. This last artifact represents the end of an era for Detroit—and for The Henry Ford’s offsite collections warehouses.
Team photograph with the last artifact to leave the warehouse. / Photo by Rudy Ruzicska
MSB is now home to more than 40,000 artifacts previously located in offsite and onsite storage areas, as well as recent new accessions. Centralizing our collections in MSB is an important step in helping us advance collections care through increased access and improved environments. Most importantly, MSB has allowed us to consolidate a large portion of our collections and our collections work into one building, a first for The Henry Ford. While these items are now successfully located in our new building, we continue to work to make MSB truly shine.
Our move from offsite storage has come to an end, and as we continue to unpack, rearrange, and further consolidate our stored collections (there are 14 storage areas onsite…) we are looking forward to sharing more of what MSB has to offer!
The Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village. / THF1882
The Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village was originally designed and built in New Haven, Connecticut, over the course of 1822 and 1823. The home, designed by David Hoadley, is built in the Classical Revival style, popular in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
The house is loaded with wonderful classical details, some of which include carved Ionic capitals topping solid chestnut fluted columns on the front portico (very appropriate, as they represent wisdom in the Greek order), fluted pilasters (rectangular columns) with side lights and a fan light (window) over the front door, and interesting wooden mutules (large decorative wooden blocks with holes evenly drilled over the surface) lining the underside of the cornice or the soffit. Mutules are elements found on ancient Greek and Roman temples and were originally decorative elements found on rafter ends. The cornice surrounds the pediment (the triangular portion) on the front of the house and runs under the eaves or soffit all around the perimeter.
The front portico of the Noah Webster Home features fluted columns with carved Ionic capitals. The soffit of the roof includes dentil details (more below) and a very fine bead trim at the lower edge. The doorway’s fluted pilasters carry through the column elements with the same carved Ionic capitals. The front door with its fan light is a reproduction based on original examples found in the New Haven region, and the door hardware is also a reproduction of a fine imported English lock set. The porch, steps, and column plinths, along with the front foundation blocks, are all brownstone. / Photo by Jim Johnson
The above shots show details of the mutules on Webster Home. These architectural ornaments were inspired by details found on ancient Greek and Roman temples, and were often seen as ornamentation for rafter ends that would extend under the eave. The details within the mutules were completed in sets of six and could also include “drops” and additional elements that would connect at a right angle to the frieze below the eave cornice. Our examples use a round drilled pattern in sets of six. / Photos by Jim Johnson
All the windows have decorative lintels (horizontal supports at the top), which are further decorated with rows of small blocks known as dentils, because they indeed look like rows of teeth. So, our Webster Home has lintels with dentils. The cornice of the front portico (a roof supported by columns) also features a larger set of dentils, and a very delicate bead molding on the edge of the cornice.
The photos above show details of the decorative window lentils, ornamented with dentils, small wooden blocks that resemble rows of teeth. / Photos by Jim Johnson
Another interesting note about the front façade of the building has to do with the center second-floor window over the portico. Originally, there was not a real window in that opening—it was a dummy window originally included to balance the fenestration (design of the window and door openings) on the façade of the house. All the original site photos show that window with a closed set of blinds (note that shutters are solid covers, whereas blinds have louvers). In recent years, I have worked with our carpentry staff to permanently close the blinds of the “new” window added to the house by Edward Cutler in 1936 in order to return the front of the house to its original appearance.
There was never an actual window in the second-floor center opening. The closed blinds create the illusion of a window that balances the front façade with equal openings top and bottom. / Photo by Jim Johnson
All of these above-mentioned decorative elements continue into the rear of the house, including a very charming small back porch that features transom windows over both back doors and fluted columns with carved Ionic capitals. Also at the rear is the third-floor attic that features a pair of quarter-moon windows, a style immortalized in the house from The Amityville Horror. (This is not lost on an entire generation of our movie-going guests, so we light those windows red for Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village.)
Quarter moon windows on the rear elevation provide light for the attic stairway. The decorative mutule elements can clearly be seen on the soffit of the entire cornice, including the later brick addition. / Photo by Jim Johnson
I should note that due to significant changes to the rear of the house in the nineteenth century, and its reconstruction into a hillside in Greenfield Village, many alterations were made. But, in doing so, the original architectural features were carried forward with excellent craftsmanship and design.
These images show the architectural details of the rear portico. Because of significant changes to the rear of the house in the 1860s, and its reconstruction into a hillside in Greenfield Village, modifications were made to the backside. None the less, original architectural elements were carried through with very high levels of craftsmanship and design. / Photos by Jim Johnson
If all these beautiful details were not enough, front and center in the triangular pediment on the front elevation, acting as a focal point, is a louvered ellipse (oval), which was undoubtedly handmade by a master craftsman (anonymous to us today) in New Haven in 1822. It consists of thin pieces of wood that create a louvered fan radiating from a carved central floret design, all set in a wooden oval frame, or ellipse. Though wonderfully decorative, it also served a function, allowing air and some light into the attic space. In letters sent by Rebecca Webster to Noah Webster while he was away on a long overseas research trip in the 1820s, Rebecca mentions laying out pippins (apples) in the attic.
Early-twentieth-century photographs of the house on its original site in New Haven clearly show the Victorian/Italianate additions that were added to the exterior of the house in 1868 by the Trowbridge family. The Trowbridge family is connected to Mary Southgate, the Websters’ granddaughter, who was raised in the house and married Henry Trowbridge in 1838. They did not take possession of the house until 1849, when it was deeded to them by the Webster estate.
Mary died in 1860 and Henry remarried, thus ending the direct Webster association with the house. Henry took on the renovations of the house with his second wife to make the house more fashionable, both inside and out. In doing so, most of the original Federal-style architectural elements were removed, primarily inside, and were replaced with heavy dark walnut woodwork, doors, and a carved staircase. The interior updates also included marble fireplace surrounds and plaster medallions in all the main room ceilings.
The exterior alterations and additions take the form of one- and two-story bay windows and a large brick addition to the rear of the house. A new Italianate-style dark walnut front door and surround was also installed. Surprisingly, many of the early-nineteenth-century architectural decorative elements were included within the Victorian/Italianate additions, likely to create continuity. This can be seen in the early-twentieth-century photographs that show that mutules have been added to the soffits of all of the 1860s bay windows and the brick addition. At some point, likely in the early twentieth century, all the windows were replaced with large one-over-one pane sashes.
This image, taken March 31, 1934, as part of the Historic American Building Survey, shows the Webster Home on its original site at the corner of Temple and Grove Streets in New Haven, Connecticut. It clearly shows the late 1860s Italianate additions in the form of second-floor bay windows, an Italianate-style front door and surround, and updated one-over-one pane windows. The house was in use as a dormitory by Yale University at the time this photograph was taken. / THF236363
A view of the rear of the house in New Haven, circa 1936, showing the original configuration on level ground. The square Italianate addition and second story bay window were added in 1868. / THF236377
In 1936, Yale University decided to sell the Noah Webster Home to a demolition company for salvage, to make way for new construction. Edward Cutler recalled that the one thing Yale was interested in was the ellipse—for the art school, due to its extraordinary design and craftsmanship. Luckily, Henry Ford’s representatives were able to purchase the house from the demolition company before many of the decorative elements had been stripped off.
Since 1936, the front pediment of the Webster Home has undergone many repairs, siding replacement, and painting. It faces almost full west and takes a beating from the elements. Yet not until now has the ellipse been removed and examined more closely.
Recently, our carpentry team carefully removed the ellipse and took it back to their shop to undergo some repair work. The decision was made to not replace any of its elements, but rather to stabilize the original louvers and do some reinforcements to the center floret element. Further work was done to ensure that no water can get in or around any part of the ellipse. New siding was custom milled for the pediment, including areas where it joins the ellipse, and the molding that surrounds it was restored. Several coats of new paint will further protect this amazing and beautiful survivor.
These images show the 199-year-old decorative ellipse from the front pediment of the Noah Webster Home. It underwent conservation efforts and received several coats of new paint in preparation for its return to its rightful location. / Photos by Jim Johnson
The three images above show the original ellipse being reinstalled in the pediment. / Photos by Jim Johnson
The renovation of the façade of the Noah Webster Home is now complete as the ellipse has returned to its place of honor, ready to withstand the elements for another 200 years. Kudos to the talented carpentry and painting staff of The Henry Ford!
The completed renovation of the façade of the Noah Webster Home. / Photo by Jim Johnson
So, the next time you walk by the Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village, slow down a bit and linger to allow time to take in the all the details that were intended to be seen—when the speed of life moved at a very different pace, two centuries ago.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village & Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford.