A key feature of the architectural restoration of the Blue Room is the repair and reinstallation of the room’s original 18th-century mantel. When the room was restored in the early 1980s, it was thought that the mantel in place at that time was not original, so it was removed and placed in storage. However, recent physical investigation, paint analysis, and documentary research demonstrated that the mantel previously removed was the mantel installed in 1776. As such, the architecture team began the process of repairing and reinstalling the mantel.
Before repairs were undertaken, the condition of the mantel was extensively documented with measured drawings, detailed photography, and written description. The information gathered included:
• Identifying the species of wood used (southern yellow pine for the mantel base and tulip poplar for the applied trim)
• Indicating methods of manufacturing (pit and hand sawing with some adzing; planing)
• Surveying locations and types of nails (hand-wrought T-heads, rose-heads, and headless brads)
• Closely examining a break initially believed to have been sustained during the removal in the 1980s but now thought to date to the insertion of the Rumford insert in the 1790s (joint between the header and right leg).
A wooden mantel is made of three boards joined with mortise-and-tenon joints. The header is the horizontal board that runs above the firebox; the vertical boards that flank the box are called legs. The ends of the header are fashioned into tenons that slip into mortises, essentially groves cut into the tops of the legs. Wooden pegs are used to secure the pieces together. This functional three-piece mantel is then adorned with moldings that create the decorative ornamentation. Our careful study of the mantel indicated that the break was old and that it was repaired using wrought nails, suggesting a Washington date. It was likely broken in the 1790s while being removed to allow the Rumford insert to be installed into the firebox and was repaired by additional nailing at that time. After documentation was completed, preservation carpenter, John O’Rourke, repaired the break using glue.
With a number of wrought iron nails still in place and protruding from the back of the mantel, it was necessary to remove early nails that had been bent and no longer fit back into their early nail holes. These nails were catalogued and accessioned into the architectural study collection. One nail did fit directly into its hole, and it acted as a guide to ensure that the mantel was in the correct position. In fact, when put in place, the mantel fit exactly against paint the ‘paint ghost’ where early paint layers on the chair rail and baseboard butted up against it. Once the mantel was in position, four additional stainless steel finish nails were added to secure it. The location of each of the new nails was documented and plotted on our drawing for future reference.
Along with the rest of the room’s woodwork, the mantel will be repainted with hand-ground, oil paint, matched to the neutral cream shade that paint analysis indicated was used in the 1790s.