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Johnstown's Johnson Hall seeks to recreate 18th-century wallpaper

Johnstown's Johnson Hall seeks to recreate 18th-century wallpaper

State historic site aims at authenticity
Johnstown's Johnson Hall seeks to recreate 18th-century wallpaper
Wade Wells holds a sample of wallpaper that will cover the walls of the foyer at Johnson Hall in Johnstown.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

JOHNSTOWN — When Sir William Johnson first moved into Johnson Hall with his common law wife, the Native American Molly Brant, in 1763 he faced a dilemma not unfamiliar to many couples living together in a new home for the first time: What kind of wallpaper should they hang? 

Determining the answer to that question, and restoring the interior decor of the hall to its former 18th century glory, has been an ongoing project at the Johnson Hall State Historic Site. 

Bernadette Weaver, secretary of the non-profit group Friends of Johnson Hall, said before 1763 Johnson had been living at Fort Johnson, where his first common law wife had lived before she died. She said when he moved to Johnson Hall with Brant he wanted it to look as impressive as possible.  

"We were technically in the wilderness at that point," Weaver said of the territory that would come to be known as Johnstown.

"He did not want to be any less than any of his other counterparts in more populated areas, like England, or the folks in Schenectady, and in Albany," Weaver said. "He didn't want to be seen as any less than that. He was doing a lot of diplomacy, and the wallpaper had a definite impact in all of the rooms that were papered." 

Johnson Hall Site Manager Wade Wells said when New York state acquired Johnson Hall in 1906, it had been in continuous use as a residence and contained some Victorian wallpaper. Since then, he said, it's been a gradual restoration process, as site managers have slowly pushed the property backward in time to its original styles and design.

"That's the goal, to get the house to as close to how it looked as we can to when Sir William and Molly Brant were living here," he said.  

Wells said recreating restoration quality 18th century wallpaper is a meticulous and costly process, which begins first with deciding what kind of pattern it should have and what style of paper is most appropriate. 

"We know Sir William wallpapered, he does mention that, but we don't have any shards of the original paper remaining, so what we have to do in order to paper, is to use wallpapers available to the American market between 1763 and 1774," said Wells.

Wells said Johnson Hall has modeled its restoration wallpaper after the wallpaper found in the Parson Smith House in Windham, Maine, built in 1764. He said the Parson Smith House had a gray-colored paper, but Johnson Hall has tweaked that design, changing the color to a yellow ochre brown with black, white and brown details.

"The reason for that is that the wood paneling in Johnson Hall used three different colors: yellow ochre, red ochre and a brown glazing to imitate the wood grain of mahogany," Wells said. "We chose to use yellow ochre because it would bring out the highlights and the detail of the wood graining."

To make the wallpaper, Johnson Hall used a donation from St. George's Lodge No. 6 of $4,800, plus $2,400 from the site's state budget to hire Adelphi Paper Hangings of Sharon Springs to create pear wood blocks that are used to imprint heavy paper with the color pigments.

Wells said an organization called Parks and Trails New York has pledged an $8,500 grant to Johnson Hall, which would pay for the creation of 31 rolls of paper to be used for the upstairs and downstairs hallways. 

"It's going to be a huge lift for the hall. It's going to be a massive impact," Weaver said. 

But hanging the paper is almost as expensive as creating it. Weaver said the Friends of Johnson Hall are looking to raise between $10,000 and $12,000 to pay for a restoration wallpaper hanger to install the paper. 

Wells said the process requires skill.

"This type of paper is heavier than commercial grade paper that you get today, and it's not pre-pasted. It has to be manually pasted and then hung, so it's a little more complicated than the average new wallpaper that you can buy fresh out of the store," he said. 

Johnson Hall will also be putting down an acid free liner to help the wallpaper last longer than the original paper hung by Johnson. 

"With care, this wallpaper should last 75 to 100 years," Johnson said.

Weaver said donations to the restoration effort can be made by writing a check to the Friends of Johnson Hall, which can be given directly at the historic site. 

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