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Decorating Detectives

I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated by the restoration of Toronto’s Spadina Museum, I think it’s the shocking amount of research and dedication that went into so faithfully recreating a moment in time, long since vanished.

That’s City of Toronto Museums project curator Neil Brochu, above, examining wallpaper samples fresh from the manufacturer he sourced to digitally reproduce the complex, multi-toned patterns. This was after having detailed colour analysis performed to compensate for fading, below (note the white gloves). “We were trying to reproduce them the way they were,” states Brochu. “True, they might look better with the tonal range shifted a little this way or that, but that’s not what we wanted, we needed it to look the way it originally looked. Accuracy was paramount.”

You and I would tour Spadina and not have a clue (or a care) that this wallpaper or that drapery wasn’t absolutely accurate but the project’s chief curators, Museum Administrator Karen Edwards and Brochu, take authenticity very, very seriously. Spadina reopened to the public last month after a nearly year-long restoration that took the grand old mansion back to its glory days in the 1920s and ’30s. From now until the end of November special tours of the house are being offered that examine the enormous challenge of recreating rooms like the library featuring the wallpaper above.

In some cases, as with the so-called “blue room”, below, the only original wallpaper fragment was found behind a radiator, dirty and faded. “We had it cleaned and then looked at it under a microscope to try and determine what colour it was but there is a certain amount of guess work involved,” admits Brochu.

Whether or not the reproduction is completely accurate, the resulting room is quite pleasing in an old-fashioned sort of way, certainly the wallpaper looks terrific.

Fortunately for the curators, they had highly detailed records and remnants indicating how the house looked during the jazz age. In museum-speak, “We had a solid background in the material culture,” says Brochu.

The research dossier included purchase orders with careful descriptions of furnishings, even household grocery lists that allowed the team to stock the kitchen pantry with a selection of canned goods wrapped in reproduction labels that faithfully replicate the era.

Well-preserved fabric samples were found in sewing baskets so the challenge was to match them as closely as possible with modern equivalents. To that end, Brochu and Edwards brought in interior designer Kimberley Morris to source materials that approximated the originals.

“In some cases she hit the jackpot”, says Brochu, “by searching the historical archive fabric collections from approximately 20 fabric distributors rather than sourcing readily available commercial or popular fabrics”.

Brochu notes that “for museological reasons we can’t put out the originals either because they’re damaged or won’t withstand the exposure.”

“And when you have to reproduce something, if the object was originally made of silk, do you use silk or will a synthetic be just as good looking, cheaper and longer lasting? The house is essentially an exhibit that we expect to be up for 30 or more years so it has to last. You have to answer those questions on a case by case basis.”

As with any decorating job, Brochu and Morris adhered to the high/low dictum, mostly out of necessity; there was only so much money in the restoration budget. “The wallpaper in the drawing room (above) is an ingrain paper that was wood block-printed by an historic paper specialist in New York state,” says the conservator. “The paper itself was custom made in Montreal, then the blocks were cut and hand printed. Not only is it a good reproduction but it was produced in the same manner as the original. This was an area where we definitely splurged.”

In the sunroom, on the other hand, the area rug is a good reproduction Oushak bought off the floor at Elte; the carpet in the front hall, below, is also a modern repro. Between the cornice molding, the luscious wallpaper, the drapery, the rug and the artwork, this is an entry hall with a lot going on.

Brochu notes that the Belle Époch approach to decorating was entirely different from our design aesthetic today. “There was so much excess in terms of patterns and details so there aren’t a lot of strong focal points. There’s not the same kind of focus that we would bring to a modern interior.”

Although the house has been restored to the inter-war period, much of the decoration is a hold-over from the previous century. “It was quite typical for upper class Torontonians to have retained mid- to late 19th century furnishings well into the 20th century,” says Brochu. “There was a certain status attached to owning these things, a sense of longevity and the notion that your family was multi-generational and able to maintain this fortune, this level of influence. If Mary Austin (the family matriarch) had wanted brand new furniture from Paris, she could have had it. But that wasn’t what was done. This house represents a span of occupation and is very eclectic.”

One thing I find interesting about Spadina is the preponderance of taxidermy, as in the hallway below, a trend that’s huge again today, 100 years later.

If I’ve managed to whet your appetite about the rebirth of this beautiful historic house, definitely go for one of the tours where the restoration process is the focus; I’m certain you won’t regret this particular time trip.


Spadina Museum Historic House & Gardens
is open Tuesday – Friday from 12 – 4 pm and Saturday & Sunday from 12 – 5 pm; admission is $7.62 with reduced rates for seniors, youth and children. The restoration tours start weekdays at 1:15 pm and weekends at 3:15 pm.

“In some cases she hit the jackpot”, says Brochu “by searching the historical archive fabric collections from approximately 20 fabric distributors rather than sourcing readily available commercial or popular fabrics”.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010 by Chris
This post was written by - who has written 849 posts on styleNorth.

3 Comments For This Post

  1. magda Says:

    I think I could feel right at home here.

  2. Marcella Says:

    What a beauty!!!

  3. Lois Says:

    Good Afternoon CHRIS, isn’t that something? Can one possibly imagine the man hours involved? I’m currently renovating *once again* and I certainly appreciate the labor of love Spadina House is. Thanks for the insight.

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