The Cross House

Changing THE PLAN with some Stencil Magic?

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The parlor of the Cross House, late 2015. The room is missing its picture rail, which was 22-inches below the ceiling. I will be recreating this feature. The wine-colored sofa will remain.

 

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I discovered, hidden by layers of later wallpaper, and a radiator, the original 1894 damask-pattern wallpaper of the parlor. Way cool discovery. I would love love love to replicate the paper but, alas, cannot possibly afford to do so.

 

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Well, THE PLAN is to instead do solid color walls, and patterned draperies. So, the walls below the picture rail would be this. Although the actual color is a bit more…vivid. The wall above the picture rail and ceiling will be white.

 

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I was planning to use these draperies. But I need ten panels and was only able to get six. And the draperies are, in real life, a bit more purple than blue. Poo.

 

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The other day however an idea popped into my head. Why not flip THE PLAN? Why not pattern on the walls, and solid color draperies? Why not stencil the walls? Oh, cool! This will cost WAY less than wallpaper. So I did a Google search for Large Damask Wall Stencil (I am not a petite scale kinda guy, and nor is the Cross House), and this pattern immediately captured my special attention. What I particular liked was the overlapping patterns, differing tones, and the fact that one would not need to precisely align each medallion to the others. Cool. To me, this look is a modern take on the original 1894 damask. I am uncertain at the moment of what colors I would stencil with, although I am planning to still use the wall color shown above.

 

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Actual stencil.

 

And I can get ten panels of these Duping silk draperies. The color makes me eek-kneed.
And I can get ten panels of these Dupioni silk draperies. The color makes me weak-kneed, as does the 80% discount now available.

 

I have a long background in architecture and design. And restoring the architecture of the Cross House is MUCH easier than trying to figure out how to decorate the place!

For, I have never decorated a house built in 1894. To me, the challenge is trying to create a decor which complements rather than mimics a Victorian-era decor. I have no desire for a decor which looks like it could have been lifted from an 1894 image. No, I really like that the Cross House has been a witness to a 122-years of history and design, and want the finished house to reflect this.

So, while the parlor will have a period-correct gas/electric chandelier and sconces, the adjacent library is going to have five hanging 1970s Hollywood-Regency pendants hanging low over a shelving island. In the parlor, I am desperately seeking a classic marble-topped Saarinen tulip table to sit under the gas/electric chandelier rather than a coffee table (I loath coffee tables — too low!), and fit well with the curvaceous sofa:

 

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The sofa. I actually have two of these. The second one may end up in my bedroom. Or the carriage house.

 

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A classic Tulip Table. The center shelving island in the adjacent library will also be marble-topped.

 

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Above the Tulip Table will be this, with glass shades.

 

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While in some room I want to hang a classic Sputnik chandelier. Maybe my bedroom?

 

In short, I am vying for an eclectic look.

It is fascinating trying to artfully blend together 122-years of decorative history while at the same time complementing the 1894 structure. The whole process seems to have a magical quality — ideas take hold then fade while other delicious concepts are dashed by the dreaded OUT OF STOCK notice as initially unpromising thoughts grow and are nourished into fabulous possibilities — and it will be interesting to see what I finally end up with.

Your thoughts are invited!

27 Responses to Changing THE PLAN with some Stencil Magic?

  1. I live in a mid mod house (which is considered historic for Las Vegas, where the oldest homes date from the 1950s – being from “back east” my husband and I have a good chuckle whenever someone comes over and says, “Wow, this house is soooooooo old!”). We have a huge intact breeze block wall outside in front painted the exact same color. And it is indeed eye catching.

    I love that sofa – this room is going to be stunning when it is complete.

  2. Ross, I love your approach to decorating. Since I’m not at all handy, I have always found the decorating part to be the easy (and fun!) part. That said, I think the belief that you must decorate to make something look like a museum can sometimes be problematic. Even in 1894, when the original occupants lived there, they probably owned pieces that weren’t from 1894. They might have had an 1850s table that was in the family, and brought with them other furniture and heirlooms they had collected during the years prior. Decorating from a single era gives a home a very “flat” look, in my opinion, akin to purchasing a large matching furniture set out of a catalogue. It’s the mixing that gives it warmth and life.

  3. In 122 years there have been a lot of hits and a great number of misses in decor. I also think that so much of it comes down to personal taste. Most decor from the 60s through the 80s does nothing for me, but I think that is because that is what the majority of houses had while I was growing up. Anything before that strikes me as much more rich and interesting. I always wonder if the grand kids of generation Z will pine for homes built in the 1990s like we do for homes built in the 1890s! I know I was always fascinated by all things turn of the century growing up, but my grandparents, born between 1905 – 1909 thought I was nuts and loved everything to be new and modern, wondering why I would like all that “old stuff.”

    • Hi Amy,

      I basically like everything. Till about 1975. After that? Not much.

      That said, there has been some quite exciting modernist architecture during the last twenty years. And I like the lighting revolution caused by LED bulbs. Some cool stuff!

  4. Love the stencil idea, and the drapes are divine. How about a metallic for the stencil paint? I think metallic gold with the paint color would be scrumptious. I also think that mixing the mid-century pieces with their clean lines is a great juxtaposition to the fancy Victorian style of the house and really lets the house shine.

    • Julia, great minds think alike! Yes, I am thinking of using metallic paint for the stencil, gold and silver and copper. All very subtle and lightly applied.

  5. My first thoughts for the stencil was something shiny! I am not great with matching colours, but I agree that metallic would be wonderful. Didn’t old wallpaper often have some kind of shine in the pattern?

    My second thought was a colour to match the sofa, but I’m not sure if that would look good on a room-full scale.

  6. When you’re auditioning stencil colors try using the wall color in a couple slightly different values, then add a silver or pewter to hint at the blue of the drapes. I agree subtly is the key. You have a really creative journey ahead of you!

  7. I’m a big fan of stenciling, though have you considered using a period design? Here’s at least one stencil catalog from 1900 which is pretty close to the date on the house.

  8. Ross, you and I typically communicate by email and often we are discussing matters of opinion that don’t need to be played out publicly (who likes being challenged on their own blog?). You suggested this conversation go up, though…

    I agree completely with the idea of shifting to patterned walls and the idea of stenciling, but I would like to suggest that using the “eclectic” contemporary stencil could be big mistake that you would regret.

    I have no issue with the eclectic approach to decor in general (though it is often done poorly – but so is the period look frankly). But in a special house like yours, where so much attention has been paid to authenticity and integrity, going eclectic in the primary formal rooms on anything that is physically connected to the house, including lighting and wall treatments, is a missed opportunity and will create a disconnect that breaks the spell of the house that you are creating. And this house is going to cast quite a spell.

    I say have at it with furniture, carpets, upholstery, the nick nacks on the mantel – even (with thoughfulness) the draperies, but I prefer to leave the eclectic wall treatments to the less formal areas like bedrooms where the bar is lower and the living more casual.

    Here is my question – why would you not simply have a stencil made that replicates the absolutely fantastic old embossed wallpaper?

    It would be easy to do, needing only two stencils/colors (you could drop it to one color if costs had to be minimized), and you could even cut them yourself. You could also tweak the colors to get the palette you want, though I suspect the original colors would feel pretty right just as they are. I think you’ll be amazed at how spectacular this will look.

    In fact, I would be willing to do the digital work to re-create the original pattern full scale from your surviving sample (looks like most of the pattern is there), and pay for the cost of having the stencils cut professionally.

    Just let me know if you are interested.

    • Bo, I do not mind being publicly challenged!

      Particularly by you!

      I know this whole issue is FRAUGHT with difficulties. And I know that 99% of people who buy a Victorian-era home work hard to create a period-correct decor. And I know that as a result my plans are heresy.

      As I have mentioned, I am eager NOT to do a period-correct decor, notwithstanding my eagerness to properly restore the structure to its original appearance.

      I have a long career in interior design, so, hopefully, this experience will help protect me from falling flat on my face!

      To me, paint on walls is something that a later owner (or me even) can easily redo. And I equate paint with decor, rather than structure.

      All this said, I would be utterly fascinated to see what you might come up with, stencil-wise, from the pitiful fragments of original wallpaper I discovered.

      This would also make for a fabulous later post!

      NOTE: I would absolutely be interested in doing a stencil of the stairhall wallpaper, frieze, and ceiling paper! While I would much rather replicate these papers I am uncertain if I will ever be able to afford the cost.

      • If you do want to go with the stencil – I am 100% confident you’ll be glad you did.

        However, I would suggest that if you aren’t going to do the walls in the formal rooms in a manner related to the date of the house, then you could also save a lot of money by not worrying about the lighting either – I personally really don’t think it works to do one and not the other, and I will try to articulate why…

        We can generally all agree that the stuff that is “attached to the house” – moldings, windows, doors, mantels, tiles, etc. are like the bones of the house – essential to its basic character and integrity, and well worth restoring. However, lighting and wallpaper (and, debatably, window treatments) share a gray area around “are they attached to the house, or part of the décor?”

        This is a classic rub point among folks who love old houses and also like decorating, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer – but there are consequences. It just depends on the impact one wants to achieve with their design choices.

        It is my position that the formal-room interiors in personality-filled old houses like yours – living room, dining room, library – work best when one commits to one answer or the other, but I think they fail when they try to have a foot in both worlds. Take a look at Pinterest and This Old House. Even in Old-House Journal, there are no shortage of examples of this problem. And Lonny tries my patience like no other publication. 😉

        One reference point is that if you were to walk into an old house that had been moved out of and completely emptied by the original occupants, and then locked up until you entered it again a century later, what was left behind would be the ultimate in coolness and impact – and for me that would include the lighting and wall treatments, and possibly the draperies (it did happen). With the standards you are setting for all the other aspects of the restoration of the house, you are really in alignment with this in most every aspect except the formal room walls.

        But more importantly, my primary design goal personally is not integrity or authenticity in and of themselves, but BEAUTY – and integrity and authenticity are inherently qualities that are essential to beauty. I think real beauty speaks directly through the ages and dignifies a house, and that is a goal worth striving for when we want houses to last and touch people.

        I guess my personal question to those facing this question of introducing personal/contemporary/eclectic taste on an otherwise strongly present period interior – as an exercise, no need to answer it – would be, costs notwithstanding, what personal freedom or part of yourself (often this is really a question of ego) do you feel you are giving up or compromising by going with period-sensitive lighting and wall treatments in the formal rooms over the more eclectic approach?

        I think people forget how eclectic period houses were when they were built – there is a lot of latitude for personal expression without being the proverbial “slave to the past” or dreaded “neo-historicist” – but one does have to care deeply and learn a lot.

        My guess is that A) it often just seems too hard to find period-sensitive solutions we like and can afford, and B) we each have some line of insecurity where we need our houses to express our own ego more than we want them to express their own essential identity.

        The problem with B) is that played out over and over from owner to owner, there tends to not be much essential identity left after a while – and one really bad apple can destroy a home’s character permanently for everyone who follows. We all know examples of this tragedy. The fact that the Cross House has survived this process as intact as it has is somewhat miraculous.

        One thing that I think so many of your fans, including me, appreciate about your process with the Cross House is how you are letting the house lead the dance, and you are letting yourself learn how to dance with it rather than stepping on its toes trying to take the lead. This sets the house up to dance with joy and strength for decades to come – kudos to you, regardless of where you fall on the “decor gray area” question.

        Of course, this is all just blah blah rationalizing that doesn’t make the work any easier, cheaper or faster. Everybody finds their own perfect path, and no doubt lighting and wall treatments can be changed later. But most of us just get one chance – that you are putting so much thought into your one chance to right the wrongs of the past is saintly.

        P.S. My personal feeling is that a stencil for the stairhall is not the way to go, because the figural imagery on that paper was three-dimensional and I think the translation into a flat stencil will be weak and really miss the point of the paper. Paint and wait. With the parlor damask, which is essentially a 2D pattern, the translation is much more natural and intuitive – a no-brainer for a stencil.

        • My first thought is…you’re telling a lighting restoration expert that lighting doesn’t matter?? I’m feeling a little defensive of my new BFF Ross (it may be the two glasses of cabernet talking)… Ross, paint or stencil, which ever you do, it’s ONLY paint! I’ve seen the other work you’ve done, and it’s been fabulous. You are spot-on as far as being true to the bones of the house, have a little fun with the decor! You’ve got this! Cheers!!

          • Julia,

            It is very sweet of you to defend me, even if in a cabernet sort of way!

            Might I offer some background?

            Bo is a lighting restoration expert, too. In fact, he knows a ton more about pre-1920 lighting than I do!

            I took his comment to be about historical consistency: If I am SO focused on period-correct lighting, why not be as focused on period-correct wall treatments?

            I get his point. It is a good point!

  9. Hmm…. things to ponder on!

    My thought – this lovely old lady has so carefully held onto her original decor, hiding it away for 122 years, so she could show you how she once was dressed in such finery. I agree with Bo. You’re giving her her shiny floors, bright trim, fancy lighting, stained glass jewels, and full sense of self back, why not try her wall ‘paper’ too?

    I’d love to see what the stencil would look like.

  10. i have a tulip table but didn’t know they came with a marble top. must put a real strain on that slender center post

  11. I was curious about diameter how thick the marble was and how much it weighed. mine is all fiberglass or whatever the 50s material was they made it out of and seemed a little top heavy with just a regular top. it seemed like with marble it would be even more so.

    Also, I was kind of curious about the marble tops on the radiators. A couple of my old aunties had radiators in their victorian houses and they were always bumpy and peaked on top – the bumps were always way hotter than the rest of the radiator.

    I’m amazed that your marble tops are still in one piece. Marble is kind of a soft stone and you talk of warming the butt on them. What keeps them – esp. that long curved one – from cracking?

    • The marble radiator tops in the Cross House are original (I know because an 1895 article describes them).

      A few are missing. I will recreate these.

      Only one is cracked, a very long one in the dining room. I will have this repaired.

  12. I’m looking at the sample pictures of the drapes that drag on the floor and I’m thinking: Who thought up this crazy fashion? It makes about as much sense as guys wearing “shorts” down to their ankles. Terribly ill-fitting and unattractive. And I’ve seen pictures of some drapes that are even longer than this. Absolutely atrocious! Anyone thinking of doing this: *don’t!* It doesn’t look right. It looks like you bought the wrong size and don’t know how to hem.

    • No argument here. Here is a nice example from 1889.

      I prefer bullion or fringe, just off the floor like here.

      Curtains and portieres are a little different, but with portieres it is my belief that the bullion/fringe is functional, not just pretty. I’ve never read any evidence for this, but a permeable bottom area allows air pressure to equalize between rooms without blowing the fabric in or out.

      Of course, as a remedy for drafts, that is not so functional… 😉

  13. I have a can of stuff that when painted over other paint gives it a glossy look that is really nice for doing stripes of high gloss vs flat paint. It would be neat to use it for the lowest layer of the stencil you chose to use- very subtle.

    I also though, have to agree with Bo in that the stencils, in my opinion, should not be “modern” but more like the beautiful ones you posted previously. At least on the first floor. Bedrooms, etc. on the second floor would be a better place for playing with stencils, in my opinion. The modern will look great, but with so much emphasis on lighting, etc. preserving the past, I would prefer that the stencils look more in line with the original era.

    Oh, and the overlong drapes? I think you mentioned having a cat. I see those and see a cat’s favorite place to sleep, and collecting lots of cat hair!

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