Portland’s Victoria Mansion launches its ‘largest conservation project’

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PORTLAND — Recognized as one of the only remaining structures of its type in the U.S., Victoria Mansion has received a $130,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to restore the mansion’s reception room.

Work began this month and will last through early spring, with a goal to have the project completed by the time the museum is ready to re-open to visitors May 1.

Museum Director Thomas Johnson said the reception room project is the “largest conservation project” staff has ever undertaken. “It will be spectacular when it’s finished,” he said.

Johnson said the reception room was named one of the 50 most important historic rooms in America in 2010, and, while the room and its decor have always “dazzled visitors,” it’s only now that “we’re seeing the original intent.”

The restoration work is being overseen by the Gianfranco Pocobene Studio, which is based in Massachusetts. Pocobene himself is in the building on most days; the reception area is the fourth room in the mansion his studio has been hired to restore.

“We’re preserving every square inch we possibly can,” Pocobene said. “This is very meticulous work, and it’s a delicate balance because we want to preserve as much of the original artist’s (work as possible).”

Johnson said restoring the reception room has been planned for several years and the museum is fundraising to match the grant it received.

The restoration that Pocobene and his team are doing on the painted walls and ceiling is only one phase of a five-year plan to fully restore the room to what it looked like in 1860, Johnson said.

The goal, he said, is to restore everything – from the carpeting to the furnishings – to make the room as historically accurate as possible.

Construction on the mansion at 109 Danforth St. began in 1858, after Ruggles Sylvester Morse and his wife, Olive, bought two adjoining lots between Park and High streets for $11,000.

The mansion, which the Morses moved into in 1860, has 12 rooms open to the public and is believed to be one of the last remaining, intact examples of mid-19th century American architecture and interior design.

The house was built in the Italian villa style and is a “virtual time capsule of pre-Civil War grandeur,” according to the mansion’s official guide book. The interior is replete with painted walls and ceilings, ornamental plaster work, carved marble fireplaces and stained glass, including a large skylight.

Johnson said the painted walls and ceilings represent the last intact work of noted artist Giuseppe Guidicini, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1832 and worked as a scenic artist with the Italian Opera Company in New York City.

The reception room was “luxuriously” decorated to impress visitors with the wealth of the Morse family, Johnson said. Not much is known about how the Morses used the house, he said, but in Victorian times people lived “very ordered lives,” and each room had a very specific purpose.

Johnson said it’s likely that some visitors to the house actually never got beyond the reception room.

In addition to conserving Guidicini’s work, which includes a thorough cleaning of all the frescoes and ornamental plaster work, Pocobene said his team will have to do some infilling.

He said one of the challenges of the restoration work will be color-matching, which Pocobene called “a bit of a trick,” especially since Guidicini mixed his own paint to get the colors he wanted.

Pocobene said there’s actually “a lot of science” behind restoration work “to understand the makeup of the materials” used, which, he said, are very easy to damage.

“We have to take a very methodical approach,” Pocobene said.

He added, “I’ve always been blown away by the top level” of Guidicini’s work, which “compares to anything you could find in Europe” from the same time period.

“This is just phenomenal, just brilliant painting, and the astonishing thing is that it’s still here,” he said.

Johnson said many scholars consider the mansion the apogee of pre-Civil War Victorian construction and decoration. “The wealth it took to create is in the 1 percent or even less,” he said.

Morse made his money as a hotelier in New Orleans, but as a Maine native decided to build the mansion as a summer home to escape the heat and disease that was rampant in New Orleans in the late 1850s and throughout the Civil War period.

“He became very, very wealthy, and this house became a statement of his success,” Johnson said. “Morse could have (built) anywhere, but I think in some measure this house has a component of ‘look what I (accomplished).’”

Overall, Johnson said, the mansion is “very eclectic” and that “no staffer here would be able to say which is their favorite room because they’re all so fabulous.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

The reception room is located to the right of the front door in Victoria Mansion on Danforth Street in Portland. Restoring the room is the largest conservation project ever undertaken at the museum.

Alexa Beller, of Gianfranco Pocobene Studio in Massachusetts, works on the intricate painted ceiling and plasterwork in the reception room at Victoria Mansion in downtown Portland.

The detailed framing on the reception room ceiling in Victoria Mansion in Portland.

Thomas Johnson, director of the Victoria Mansion museum, said when restoration work is complete in the mansion’s reception room “it will be spectacular.”

Conservationist Gianfranco Pocobene at work in the reception room at Victoria Mansion. His studio is responsible for cleaning and restoring the work of artist Giuseppe Guidicini.

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