Restoring the Past
The business and passion of preserving precious objects.
JORDAN HARO Photograph
Most New Orleanians can confess to a love for old familiar objects. Our treasures are precious to us, whether or not they have great value.
Sometimes, there’s a happy coincidence that something we cherish also has historic worth. One local, a many times great-grandson of Pierre Derbigny, the last Governor of Louisiana born in France, is the proud possessor of a dessert plate strewn with tiny flowers, part of a family set associated with the 1825 visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to the city.
New Orleanian Bryce Reveley also cherishes a piece of china passed down in her mother’s Arkansas family, an “ambrosia bowl” from a family plantation lost in the 1927 flood.
Reveley’s reverence for objects from the past has become a career. She is currently restoring her father’s family home, a two-story 1846 log cabin in Arkansas’ Ozarks. A tiny scrap in the chinks between logs “turned out to be a doll’s sun bonnet,”
“It’s in an acid-free box, I’ve dusted it but I haven’t cleaned it yet,” she noted. When she’s ready to conserve that bonnet, she has the professional skills for the task.
A veteran of restorations – she and her husband rebuilt and live in an 1870s house Uptown and also restored Belle Alliance plantation near Napoleonville – Reveley, whose graduate studies were in ancient languages, admits, “I have a kinship with older things. I play the harp. I make lace.”
The lace-making skill came in handy when a friend from church accidentally washed a family lace tablecloth. Asked to repair it, Reveley completed the job and then managed to restore the entire cloth to a proper color. This led to courses at the American Institute of Textile Arts. “What was a hobby became a profession,” she says.
Today, Bryce Reveley’s Gentle Arts (895-5628, GentleArtsNola.com) is the place to go if you have a 1940s era wedding dress with stains from the cedar chest in which it was kept. (The dress in question came out white as new!) For about 30 years, Reveley has been the local go-to person for linens and laces that show the ravages of time. Employee Nicole Blais has learned from Bryce both textile conservation (making the item look its very best without alteration) and restoration (bringing a piece back to its former glory with additional work). “Right now we’re restoring a 200-year-old wedding dress for a client who‘s wearing it next year: it’s a tiny little dress and we’re hand beading it with pearls,” Blais says.
Jessica Hack, at Textile Restoration in Algiers (366-0786, Textile-Restoration.com), began as a weaver. Between commissions for her weaving, she learned to repair oriental carpets and her work with fabric art grew from that. “Predominantly I do work for institutions,” she says, “but I still have private clients.” At the moment she’s working on a tattered Confederate flag, an early 17th-century tapestry and a mantle for a Queen of the Krewe of Hermes. One remarkable piece she recalls? “A 3-foot-long stuffed doll of Superman flying. It was made out of various satin materials that had faded over time. The man who sent it to me wanted to refurbish it because he wanted to give it to his son. He said, ‘My son is a Superman to me.’”
Blake Vonder (944-7900, Art-Restoration.com) has been around almost 20 years, and she and her team of craftsmen deal with a variety of objects. At the moment they’re working on “a site attached to the LSU Medical School, restoring a plaster frieze that was done as part of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.” Some posters from the 1884 Cotton Exposition in Audubon Park fare are also getting attention from the guild.
Rene Deville (895-7366, email@example.com) deals with works on paper. With a degree in Fine Arts from Loyola University, she went to the University of Texas for a Master’s in preservation and conservation studies. “I am legally a state certified paper conservator,” she says. A regular client is the Historic New Orleans Collection. “They have conservation needs for rare books – sometimes things going on exhibit, sometimes it’s maintenance.” De Ville is also the go-to person when you find a prized drawing has a spot of mold on its glass, something not unusual in this climate.
If your paintings need help, seek out Shamil Salah (948-2695). A New York native, he studied conservation at the University of Buffalo (N.Y.). When he moved to New Orleans he eventually bought Phyllis Hudson’s painting conservation business. Like other art conservators, he had some difficult Katrina work. “One modern painting had a dried gecko squashed into it – I had to decide if it was part of the art.” Today, Salah has enough work for four assistants.
Bobby Franks of Uptown Antique Restoration (865-9622, UptownRestoration.com) will handle your damaged or tired furniture. After helping his father in his wooden boat-building hobby, Franks chanced on woodworking as an interim job before he could put his biology degree to work. Thirty-nine years later, he’s still working magic on furniture. “We repair, but we can make a matching chair if you need one for a set. We are also able to do leather inlays with gold tooling for desks.” The oldest piece he’s worked on? “Probably a 17th-century desk for a collector,” Franks says.
Even the youngest client might have need of restoration work. If it’s a china doll’s head that needs repair, check with Nancy Holford at Bric a Brac Studio (837-8111, Restore-Pro.com). A UNO Fine Arts major, she answered an ad and apprenticed to the former owner of the shop. Today she works with dolls, figurines, vases, porcelain and pottery.
Should the Lafayette dessert plate or the Arkansas ambrosia bowl crack, could they be fixed? “When dinner ware is repaired it may not be good to use,” Holland says. “I do more decorative things.”
So, if the porcelain objects were only intended for decoration – there might be hope. New Orleans heirlooms deserve the best.
Spit and Polish
Even modern metal needs an expert hand to look its best. Shane Runnels at Precision Metal Services in Metairie has brought out the best in copper, brass, aluminum and stainless steel since 1992. “We just did the Lakefront Airport,” he says, and now he has moved on to the Union Passenger Terminal, making modern 20th-century metal accents look their best. “We do all the brass in the entrance to the Monteleone Hotel, too,” Runnels says. One difficult project? “Some old brass fire extinguishers that had been through Katrina.”