As many of you regular readers of the blog know, earlier this year we had one of those moments that most old house owners only dream of. While working in our front parlor where we had a cracked paint issue on our walls, we uncovered the original wall stencils from 1871.
It was one of those "ah ha" moments. Original decorative stenciling is almost impossible to come across. Years of Paint changes and sometimes the replacement of original plaster almost always destroys any possibility of every finding these rare examples of Victorian Decorative arts.
Cincinnati Decorative arts can often be found in public spaces and they can often be restored based on historic photos. Often archive photos will reveal decorative painting on more "high end" mansions like you might find on Dayton street. However finding "neo grec' stencilling on a simple cottage is very, very rare.
Given that the cottages in Knox Hill were built as 'weekend and summer' cottages for the wealthy who belonged to the "Schuetzen Verein" A German social club with a shooting range ("Schuetzenbuckle") and beer garden located where Christian park overlook is today, the owners of these weekend getaways wanted their weekend home to have some of the same decorative elements that their home in downtown Cincinnati had, so the artisans who did the stenciling on their townhomes and mansions we sent up to Knox Hill to add that "homey touch" to the weekend place.
We were able to actually discover these stencils due to the decorative technique used by the artist at the time. The stencils were done in milk paint. Either when the stencil was first applied, or perhaps slightly layer a glaze of shellac was applied to the wall, presumably to protect the stenciling. That shellac not only protected the finish from subsequent painting but created a'crazing' condition on the paint that was applied after it. It was that shellac that kept the paint layer 'separate' from each other and allowed us to uncover the first layer of paint which was a"pompei red/terra cotta' color with the darker red stencil design. This would have been a very popular color combination at the time and one of the earlier colors to create using the natural red clays found in the region . We will probably never know the name of the artist who created the stenciling for the Knox hill cottage. It could have been an artist with one of the local decorative arts firms in Cincinnati, or it could have been a traveling artist who moved from town to town and project to project. We do feel very fortunate however to find this bit of history.
Creating a new stencil to restore the stencilled sections involved locating a good section of intact stenciling and carefully redrawing it using a tracing paper. That image was the scanned and slightly cleaned up digitally then reprinted on paper and then transferred to the stencil material where, just like 138 years ago it is then hand cut. Of course the original stencil would have been done on a heavy paper that was heavily shellaced to protect it and keep it from disintegrating when the milk paint was applied to it. Today's stencils are done on a heavier 12 mil Mylar material that should last a lifetime.
When we discovered the stenciling several people from across the country contacted me to ask if we planned on making the design available as they would like to use it on their own restoration. I am happy to say, that despite all the other things we have going on ,w e have decided to release the Knox hill stencils for sale. We have just finished up a limited production of these stencils and they will be available soon. More details will follow but it will be the first of our "Historic Homes of Cincinnati" historic products line that will not only include stencils but plaster ceiling medallions developed from intact medallions we are casting from local homes.
A portion of the profits from the sales will go directly to preservation efforts in Knox Hill. Hopefully sometime next week we will have pricing and shipping worked out. We expect stencil prices to be reasonable. What we are still working out is if we should sell both designs as a set or make them available separately. Feedback is always appreciated.