There was a distinctive Berkshires art vibe at the opening party of Chesterwood, the newly restored studio and summer estate of American Renaissance sculptor Daniel Chester French in Stockbridge, Mass. The gardens were vibrant, the mountains were streaked with fog and sunlight, and the nymph-like dancers from Berkshire Pulse emerged from the forest to open the studio doors after nearly two years of restoration.
Built in 1896, Chesterwood, a Historic Site of the National Trust, was in dire need of help. After 115 years, the interior of the studio needed only limited repairs, but the exterior of the building was both aesthetically displeasing and structurally unsound.
After decades of piecemeal patches, the long-term solution was to replace the stucco and rusted metal lath, install new wood furring and building paper, and repair wood sheathing, wood studs, timber framing, interior lath, and plaster as needed. The windows, skylight, porches, and roof were also cleaned, repaired, and restored. The result is a historically sensitive and improved exterior, while the interior retains the charming patina of age and use.
French’s creative energy is clearly seen in the architecture and style of the studio. French and Henry Bacon, a fellow architect, experimented at Chesterwood with cement, an economical, durable alternative to traditional stucco on masonry walls.
Imitative architectural materials like concrete rose in popularity between 1870-1930, transforming building practices but making future preservation and restoration a challenge. At Chesterwood, the cement-based stucco was attached with expanded metal lath onto a wood frame building. Early cements differed in their composition from modern cements, and the metal was not resistant to corrosion. What’s more, the techniques and products were untested, and their aging qualities and longevity unknown. (We now recognize that 115 years exceeds the lifespan of this construction method!)
Once the stucco test samples were approved for use, it was a quick process to apply it to the prepared building. To compare the ways in which the new and old stucco age, an area of the original stucco was retained underneath the porch.
Another puzzle was locating the coal cinders needed for the finish coat of the stucco as used in 1898 stucco composition. Because more than 100 years had passed since Chesterwood’s original construction, it was difficult to find coal byproducts today that were the same as those in the 1890s. After an exhaustive search, a facility in the Midwest was able to deliver a trailer-load of authentic coal particles which, when combined with a stash of coal stored onsite, helped complete the project.
Beyond acquiring authentic building materials, one cannot forget a significant uncontrollable factor during a renovation process: New England weather. The project started in late summer 2013; the team had hoped for 90 days of curing before winter arrived, but this past year saw an early and difficult cold season. To control the temperature, the building was tented during the winter and then heated to help maintain temperatures and protect the mostly lime-based stucco system as it slowly cured.
Chesterwood is a charming combination of artistic retreat and domesticity. The buildings, vistas, and connecting gardens express a thoughtfully designed, comfortable, and practical environment. Thanks to the design and construction teams, the deteriorated stucco no longer detracts from the place’s well-maintained beauty. And after the two-year restoration project, the studio is open again for public tours, events, and resident artists who draw inspiration from Daniel Chester French’s creative legacy in the Berkshires.
Written by Ashley R. Wilson, AIA, ASID, Graham Gund Architect
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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America’s historic places.