The Cross House

History as revealed by Wallpaper. Part 1.

When completed in 1894, the Cross House was elegantly finished, and fully wallpapered (including the ceilings).

When the house was converted into a motel in 1950, I was told that all the wallpaper was removed (along with, it seems, all the original lighting), and the walls and ceilings re-papered.

When the previous owner purchased the house in 1999, he had all the paper removed, save a few rooms.

So, what I ended up with was bare paster walls, a living room with painted-over post-WWII paper, and just a bit of post-WWII paper in the library.

However, it seems that history is motivated to continually reveal itself.

 

STAIRHALL

Upon buying the Cross House, the very thing I did was to demolish a wall on the upper stair landing. The wall was built in 1929. I have a post on this.

To my ecstatic delight and wonderment, once the wall was down, a full-height strip of 1894 wallpaper was revealed, but only the width of a 2×4:

 

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ABOVE: History revealed! This thin strip goes from the floor to the ceiling. See the green blob at the bottom of the strip? That is a second layer of wallpaper, added after 1894 but before 1929. I know that the living room was re-papered in 1907. Was the green paper added in the stair hall at the same time?

The background of the 1894 paper looks gray but is actually silver. This makes sense, as the house was lighted by gas jets and carbon-filiment light bulbs (very dim). So the silver helped reflect light.

On the silver are green swirly clusters. To the left are two small fleur-de-leys.

 

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ABOVE: A close-up.

At the top of the thin vertical strip is a frieze:

 

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ABOVE: I know it is not much to look at but I am ecstatic. A frieze! And it is like 18-inches high.

The whole ceiling was covered in the 1950s with 12×12 acoustical ceiling tiles with gold starbursts. Cool. But I am removing them (to be relocated). Under these tiles is certainly the original 1894 ceiling paper:

 

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ABOVE: Incredible. HOW has this delicate 1894 paper managed to survive?

It was common in the era to have walls papered, and with a frieze, and complementary ceiling paper. To find all three in the stair-hall seems a miracle considering that all the original paper was seemingly removed in 1950.

This being 2014, it is now possible to have ancient wallpaper bits scanned into a computer and recreated. I am greatly looking forward to seeing if I have enough bits to resurrect the wall paper, frieze, and ceiling paper. If so, I am hoping to restore the original aesthetic of the two-story stair-hall. Of course I may have to sell my car to pay for the paper but surely it will be worth the sacrifice.

Oh, when we were removing the 1929 wall on the upper landing, another thin strip was revealed:

 

An extraordinary discovery under some door trim was this fragment from the past, a circa-1940 wallpaper. So exotic! The background is silver. Of course, this precious fragment was saved.

ABOVE: This paper was under a piece of door trim. The door was likely inserted during the 1950 motel conversion. The paper looks 1940s to me, and SO exotic! The background is also silver. And I love the paper. Do I have enough for resurrection?

 

LIBRARY

The library lost its entire plaster ceiling, and 98% of its plaster walls, from water poured in two floors above to stop a fire in 1999. My heart always sinks just thinking about this near-distatser.

There are only small sections of plaster left in the library. Like above the over-mantle. Today I was removing this to bare plaster when it became evident that I could ascertain individual layers:

 

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ABOVE: There are four separate papers above. The original layer, which I assume was put up in 1950, is the one you see the most of. Is is darker due to my spraying the paper with a mister to remove it.

This original layer appears to have had a pale licac background, with clusters of lilac flowers (can you just smell them?), and silver leaves dancing about.

The paper is sweet but wholly at odds with the masculine mantle below, the stained-glass windows, and the trim.

 

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ABOVE: The second layer of paper is the stripe. The third layer is the pinky paper with the vertical white lines. Then, at the bottom, is a very very dull paper. 1960s?

I may have the time-line wrong about the library paper. The lilac paper could be older. Perhaps 1920s? It is certainly not 1894. And the last paper could be 1950s, with the second and third layers between the 1920s and the 1950s. I invite speculation!

 

LONG BEDROOM

The long bedroom was, I suspect, Mr. Cross’s bedroom. I suspect as such due to the masculine-style mantle and over-mantle. The only other masculine mantle in the house is in the library (the Man Cave in 1894). The other six mantles in the house are all more, well, girly.

In 1929 when the house was converted into apartments, the long bedroom became a studio unit, with an adjacent bath and kitchen. A large cabinet was installed in the room, housing a double pullman bed. When the house became a motel in 1950, the pullman bed was removed (sigh), and the cabinet made into a closet.

Recently I pulled the cabinet away from the wall where it has been since 1929. Under a strip of horizontal trim (holding the cabinet to the wall), was a thin horizontal strip of wallpaper. The paper is several layers thick:

 

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ABOVE: Again, I know it does not look like much, but encoded in that thin strip is a historical timeline.

 

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ABOVE: A close-up. This is the last paper installed before 1929. It is a rather dull choice of paper. But what, I breathlessly wonder, is under??????? Stay tuned!

 

LIVING ROOM:

I spent the previous week scraping post-1950 paper off the living room walls. The paper was painted so I could not wet it like I did the library paper, thus revealing the layers.

However, I did notice un unpainted fragment on the ceiling:

 

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ABOVE: The living room ceiling fragment.

Does anybody recognize the vintage? 1920s? It does not look 1950s to me.

 

CONCLUSIONS

I had planned to paint the walls of the whole house. I am not really a wallpaper kinda guy.

But…but…I am increasingly intrigued with the fact that in 120-years the walls of the Cross House have never been painted. The bare plaster laboriously laid on in 1894 is still bare plaster. So, it seems, I dunno, like a sacrilege to paint the plaster. Surely there is a special place in Restoration Hell for such people?

However, I might brave this Hell. Why? Well, take the living room for example. The walls sweep up uninterrupted to the ceiling. By having this all one color (walls and ceiling) the wonderful trim in the room really pops. They look, to my eyes, like pieces of art on the walls. Same with the mantle and over-mantle.

 

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ABOVE: The living room, December 2014. The library is through the opening. It lost all its plaster in 1999. The carriage house is through the window. The plaster living room ceiling has been sheetrocked; it was incredibly damaged. Although now covered, it is still there.

Do you see what I mean about the trim and mantle looking like art pieces on the walls? When I walk through the rooms of the Cross House I feel like I am in a museum, and with all these great examples of 1890s trim, doors, and mantles all gorgeously hung on the walls for me (and others) to admire, like beautifully framed paintings.

With the walls and ceilings all painted one color, this is how the trim/doors/mantles will remain looking. And I like the look.

I could paper the walls/ceiling still, and could maintain, mostly, the same effect, but would have to use a very dull paper with a tiny pattern so as not to create a separation between wall and ceiling. This however makes me yawn.

Oh, and paint is a LOT less expensive than wallpaper! No small consideration!

So, to paint or not to paint? That is the burning question!

14 Responses to History as revealed by Wallpaper. Part 1.

  1. Paint for sure, maybe add some stenciling on the ceiling as a border. Love the woodwork in the house. As for the unidentified livingroom ceiling paper, I found an incredibly similar/ identical pattern in my last house, hidden behind 1950-60s paneling circa 1924

    • Thanks Alan! Your discovery would seem to confirm that the paper I found on the LR ceiling might be 1920s. So, even though I was told that all the original wallpaper from the house was removed in 1950, this may not be 100% correct!

      • I found something very similar when I stripped wallpaper in a 1915 apartment in Vienna, Austria back in 2002, two layers of it actually. Back then I was convinced that these layers dated to the 50s because the top layer was still intact behind some early-60s furniture (shelves maybe, I’m not sure anymore but the piece was large enough that they refinished the floor around it) but style-wise I’m not really sure. Austrians re-decorated quite often back in the day, it was said that you ought to repaint every five years and repaper every ten! Under those layers of paper we found two different shades of paint and there were two more layers on top of them. There could have been more layers of paint though, calcimine on top of the original milk paint.

        I don’t know much about the history of the place during the first eight years but then the same tenants stayed there until 2001 (two generations)! I suppose the yellow paint on top of the original blue could have been theirs in the early 20s and then the paper, either in the 30s or after the war.

  2. You have to pick what YOU want to live with. Don’t feel guilty about not reproducing the home of the period. I think old houses should be ” alive ” – kept up and not altered but also have decor that is up to date, personal and attractive. You can give a nod to the old wall paper here and there- lining the inside of a bookcase or back wall of the inside of a cabinet or lining a drawer or even framed on the wall. I would lean towards paint as the woodwork is A-MAZ-ING

    • Hi Betsy!

      I agree. I have no desire to live in a house wholly decorated like it is 1894. Because it is 2014. While I am committed to restoring the architecture to its original appearance, I look forward to a eclectic approach regarding the decor. Why, I might even have a Warhol print on one wall!

      It would be fun to recreate the stair-hall’s 1894 wallpaper, and I do love such an undertaking. But the lighting in the hall will likely be from the Atomic Age, and the pictures on the walls will have simple, modern black or white frames. Any rugs and curtains will be bold & hip.

      I look forward to having the interior be fresh and youthful, as a counter-point to the very old structure!

  3. Had a very similar wallpaper in our hallway ceiling as your living room ceiling fragment,I kept a fragment but have not been able to find it ,I’m not the best organizer.our house was built in 1925 and I’m sure it was the original paper there.

  4. In the picture with the 4 wallpapers, could the top layer have musical notes on it?

    The paper in the first picture is seemingly beautiful.

    I think painted walls are a great idea.

  5. But paint is so boring – all one color on and on and on. zzzzzzzz sorry – I nodded off just thinking about it. Wallpaper – Thousands of variations. Check out Bradbury & Bradbury. I have some of their paper catalogs from 100 years ago. And all that fancy woodwork was meant to combine with all the colors and textures in wallpaper. Just think, years from now, folks will say “well, he did a great job on the outside but the interior – how dull”

  6. No stencils. No paper. I agree that the lines of the room and the beautiful woodwork speak for themselves and do not require any extra flounce. A few framed examples of the papers you found would make nice conversation pieces.

  7. I think the liner paper is a great idea if you want to paint some walls, but still preserve the unpainted plaster. I’ve seen other restorers do it with great success.

  8. You’ve got lots of rooms and lots of walls and ceilings, and no reason why they have to be all paper or all paint. Why not some of both? That living room ceiling pattern is a nice, subdued pattern that would not detract from the woodwork if used on some of the walls. If you do decide to paint, please, please, please, don’t slather everything in a coat of white! Be daring enough to choose real colors.

  9. Paint, definitely. Wallpaper is so busy that the woodwork would get lost. This is especially true for those of us with ADD/ ADHD. And the woodwork is what makes the house a masterpiece, along with the stained glass. The stained glass will pop with paint too. I would play with colors from the glass to make the windows pop the most.

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