Cosmos Club Restoration Complete!
After six months and 2,519 project hours, Gold Leaf Studios is happy to announce its completion of the restoration project for the Cosmos Club ballroom.
The Cosmos Club, a longtime Washington institution, has functioned as a watering hole for renowned scholars and intellectuals since its incorporation in the District in 1878. Over the years, its members have included three Presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices, 32 Nobel Prize winners, 56 Pulitzer Prize winners and 45 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The club resides on Embassy Row in the historic Townsend Mansion, built at the turn of the 20th century in the style of the Beaux-Arts school (like many of its contemporaries along Massachusetts Avenue). The exterior is inspired by the style of Louis XVI, and its interiors evoke a variety of French historical styles, common among grand houses of that era. The Warne Ballroom, in many ways the centerpiece of the mansion, is the largest room in the building, occupying the entire west end of the second floor. Richly ornamented in a 19th century interpretation of the Rococo style of Louis XV, the ballroom is the social center of the club, and the regular host of chamber music concerts and club banquets.
Our studio was originally commissioned to conserve all the original water gilding for the ballroom, but it evolved into a full-scale restoration project. However, in our initial investigation of the room’s condition, we discovered that the original gilders had problems with the adhesion of the gesso on the chain rail. We found four separate gilding layers on the chair rails.
It was clear that the original craftsmen kept applying the gold leaf and failing. As conservators, this was an important discovery. This could be a result of many site-specific incongruities—not uncommon among old and historic properties—such as the room’s moisture retention. When we discovered the adhesion problem of the original gilders, we embarked to find the root of the problem and a technique to ensure the gesso’s proper adhesion and future tenacity.
The reason for the problem turned out to be cracking in the wood substrate. It cracks because of its curvature, which expands and contracts due to rapid temperature and relative humidity variations—typical of buildings, especially older ones, with extreme fluctuations in temperature in relative humidity.
The technique we employed involved gluing cotton cheesecloth to the wood before applying the gesso. The cheesecloth acted as an internal armature to the gesso, becoming a link between the expansion of the wood and the gesso, which will hold any future cracking in place.
Like many of the techniques at Gold Leaf Studios, this was inspired by a centuries old method. 14th century Italian panel paintings from the Trecento applied canvas to wooden panels to keep the gesso from falling off the wood, which is effectively the relationship between the cheesecloth, the gesso, and the wood foundation in the Cosmos ballroom.
Once ironing out that initial crease, we got to work on everything else. An isolating coat of gesso was applied over all the original gilding, and gilder’s clay was then applied, followed by double weight 23 ¾ gold leaf carat. We re-gilded the chair rails, the flutes of capitals, the stop flutes of columns and the cartouches in burnishing bronze.
Burnishing bronze—also known as Roman gilding—was used to subdue the reflection created by electric lights, which was also part of the restoration. This is an interesting issue in contemporary gilding projects: as an ancient art, gilding was not developed with electric or fluorescent lighting in mind, and the glare is often severe. As a result, we have had to develop our burnishing bronze technique for tempering glare, which we have now mastered through years of experimentation, trial and error.
The Townsend Mansion’s architectural and historic significance is formally recognized, designated as a District of Columbia Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Historic American Buildings Survey catalog. Its presence is important to retaining the character of the Dupont Circle Historic District to which it belongs, and we were honored to be an integral part of its restoration efforts.
Incidentally, the Gold Leaf Studios workshop, just down the street from Townsend Mansion, is also a member of the Dupont Circle Historic District and National Register of Historic Places. A converted carriage house built in 1903 by Evalyn Walsh Mclean, our workshop occupies the downstairs space once used as stables. The upper floors include our offices, grand reception room, display areas, and fine art gallery. Give us a call and stop in for a visit sometime.