The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum is thrilled to unveil a new entry hall floor covering in the manner of the period around 1842, when the residence was completed. The new “floor cloth” replaces linoleum flooring that was laid 35 years ago and had seen better days. The new covering has a field of octagonal patterns of faux marble interspersed with rosettes modeled on those found on early 19th-century mirror frames, which were in turn inspired by those used in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. A bold Greek key band borders the field.
According to Carswell Berlin, a BPMM board member, co-chair of the Curatorial Committee, and an expert in classical decorative arts: “The design is fully in keeping with the bold and colorful floor coverings of the period and with a Greek Revival house. Although the nature of the original floor covering used by the Bartows in 1842 is unknown, it is highly likely that they would have had a painted canvas floor cloth, the precursor of linoleum, in the entry foyer and that they would have felt very much at home with our historically appropriate choice of design.” In 1881, a floor cloth was listed on Maria Bartow’s estate inventory.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, painted canvas floor cloths or oilcloths were used much as modern linoleum is, in high-traffic areas where durability and easy cleaning are significant issues. Unlike linoleum today, however, painted floor cloths were used in the most visible and fashionable rooms in the house such as entry halls and dining rooms. A much less expensive alternative to stone, floor cloths were available in a wide variety of fashionable patterns and colors to suit every taste.
Many manufacturers of oilcloths in Scotland and England, such as Michael Nairn of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, imported their wares into the United States. And a few domestic makers, such as New York Pattern Floor Cloth Manufactory at 35 Rivington Street, advertised their availability here. Oilcloths, both imported and domestic, were made available through carpet retailers, including Thomas L. Chester of 203 Broadway, who supplied the Astor Hotel, Peterson & Humphrey at 370 Broadway, and W & J Sloane at 245 Broadway.
The industrialized process of making oilcloth involved hanging huge lengths of heavy canvas that would be coated with multiple layers of primer and then decorated. According Jeanne Gearin, a consultant to Gracewood Design, a supplier of bespoke canvas oilcloths, “The following historical method of making canvases was contained in The Illustrated Exhibitor and Art Magazine, published in 1852. The material used was made in Dundee, Scotland, of flax and hemp. They were woven on large looms, which were constructed to accommodate the rolls, which ran approximately 113 yards, by 8 yards. This length (longer than a football field) was necessary to keep them from having to be seamed. Narrower widths for stairways and halls were cut from these rolls. After being folded into 3-foot square bales, weighing about 500 pounds, they were shipped to London.
The canvas was then stretched on large frames. These frames were in a room with 30-foot ceilings and over 90 feet in length called a ‘straining room.’ Scaffolds were erected between the frames with just enough room for a man to stand and paint first the front of one canvas and turn around and paint the back of another. The canvas was first sized and sanded with pumice to a smooth surface. Extra heavy paint was troweled on, allowed to dry, pumiced again and built up to three coats. Drying time took two to three months. No dryers were used, as they would cause the paint to crack. This large, cumbersome, heavily painted canvas was then rolled onto wooden rollers to prevent damage. It was then pulled into the printing room to be decorated. The rollers were fitted into iron sockets similar to a roller shade and gradually rolled out on the tables to be decorated.” The market for oilcloths evaporated with the introduction of linoleum in the mid-1860s.
As the Curatorial Committee watched the deterioration of the previous floor covering, they began many years ago to prepare for the day when a new floor cloth could be installed. In an effort to replace the old linoleum with the most period-appropriate flooring, the Committee researched the few artisans who have the knowledge and skill to reproduce authentic canvas oilcloth. Many meetings were held and many samples examined. After studying the suppliers and their products exhaustively, the Committee decided that an authentic canvas cloth could not withstand the constant traffic of hundreds of visitors whom Bartow-Pell welcomes each year. They come directly from the parking area in every type of weather, and they walk multiple times across the foyer. So the Committee decided to install a resilient modern product called Marmoleum, in an off-white color with no pattern, and to have the design painted on it. Marmoleum is an all natural product that does not off-gas toxins, it is fire-resistant, 100% bio-degradable and is estimated to last for 50 years as opposed to twenty for the best canvas oilcloth.
Fenway Floor Covering of New Rochelle, NY, was selected to remove the old linoleum and to lay the new unpainted flooring, which was done during the second week in June this year. Heat-welded seams, a new and improved technique, were used to join the four lengths of material together in order to achieve the necessary width to span the room from wall to wall and to forestall the breaking apart of seams that plagued the old flooring. In the week that followed, three coats of white primer were laid down as a ground for the decorative painting. During the final week of June, Franklin Tartaglione, who had worked as an assistant painting the previous floor 35 years earlier, arrived with his team of artists and created the masterpiece that we are celebrating today.
This stunning new floor covering is part of a broad campaign planned by the Committee to upgrade the rest of the entry hall and ultimately the entire house, in order to reflect the high level of polish that surely prevailed in a home with seven servants. As part of the initial focus on the entry hall, the Committee plans to repaint the room and, accordingly, undertook a historical paint analysis of the architectural wood trim. This led to the conclusion that the original color was very much like the current wall color, which was itself the result of microscopic analysis. The massive and multiple rosewood-paneled doors with silvered knobs and hinges are also due for a restoration that will reveal the beautiful grain of the wood and the luxurious hardware on which Maria Lorillard Bartow must have spent lavishly. Needless to say, for these and other projects, funds are desperately sought.
Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum is extremely grateful for funding from AB―Lori and John Massad, the Paul and Klara Porzelt Foundation, and from the individuals who contributed to the 2015 holiday fundraiser paddle raise for generously underwriting the cost of this beautiful new floor. Thanks are also due to Nora Mazur, former board member and Committee co-chair, who led the effort to make it happen, and to Committee member Leah Lenney, whose assistance and knowledge were invaluable.