The French Room
In this feature, Nichole Sheaffer of Terrawood Design, who led the restoration of the French Room, writes about its fascinating history and the team’s work in bringing back its original beauty.
Hello, Fellow History Lovers!
On the second floor of The Barker Mansion is a room with desire and design. A room with appeal and allure. A room with charisma and curiosity. This is a room unlike any other in the mansion. This is The French Room. As we step back in time through the eras of design and delight, we move through phases of attractive elements and iconic interpretation of what was the “in style” of the time. Throughout the mansion we see influences of Aestheticism and Arts & Crafts amongst its many rooms. It is here, in the French Room, that we witness the Rococo era and influence of the mid-18th century. This is the room that is the reflection of awe that Katherine Fitzgerald Barker must have felt amidst the Trianon Garden in Le Petit Trianon during a visit to Versailles.
Built in the Trianon gardens by the architect of King Louis XV, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, Le Petit Trianon was designed as a private residence for the King’s favorite mistress, Madame de Pompadour. When King Louis XVI inherited the throne, he gave the elegant small villa to his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, who desired such an escape beyond the walls of the grand Palace. It allowed her to exist in a creative space that had fewer boundaries and rules than the Queen faced daily. The Petit Trianon had many rooms, one of which was the boudoir of Marie Antoinette (image above) that especially caught the eye of Katherine Fitzgerald Barker. The walls of the boudoir were made of elegant and whimsical plaster designs. These were decorated in a light relief and colored background to emphasize and enhance the artistic arrangement of details. Katherine proposed that this room be recreated in the new addition of the Barkers’ Gilded Age mansion in Michigan City.
The architect Fredrick Wainwright Perkins planned this room according to the precise details of the Queen’s boudoir across the ocean at Versailles (image above). Master carvers produced designs then as they do now. These are hand carved in clay or wood and transferred, in form, to a usable mould. This mould is then used to cast an exact replica of the original carved design, time and time again, using a pourable plaster compound. Whilst the plaster material remains virtually unchanged, the molding material has evolved through time: instead of gallons upon gallons of Hyde glue, an animal collagen-based compound, and waxes, we now utilize synthesized plastic and rubber resins. Both materials would provide the same product as is seen in the French Room (image below) of the Barker Mansion and the boudoir in Le Petit Trianon. From 1768 to 1905 to today, the casting and replication of details has followed virtually the same order of operations. We can venture to guess that in order to produce the likeness of the boudoir wall designs, a master carver in the United States would have utilized reference photos of Le Petit Trianon at Versailles.
We cannot anticipate the changes a room will go through once it is no longer under the intention of its creator. In the case of the French Room, its original essence and vigor of French Grey with light relief was trumped by deep grey with pink relief, next light blue and white, followed by a deep turquoise, then a bright yellow with a plastic sheen, and finally a peaches’n’cream ambiance. Over the course of these changes and many layers of primer, the master carver’s hand had become invisible. There also existed a constant water leak that had caused irreparable damage to the majority of the south eastern corner of the room. Under the many layers of paint, which served as a cast, the original gypsum designs were crumbling to powder and falling off the wall. When the deteriorated condition of the walls and loss of original detail were fully revealed, the Barker family recognized the need to bring back the original luster of the French Room to its intended beauty, matching the craftsmanship throughout the mansion.
From 2022 -2023, the Terrawood team stripped all layers of paint from each wall, revealing not only the original colors but the striking details and sharply defined shapes of the original maker’s hand. The team also removed and recreated all the water damaged designs and returned them in cast plaster as they had been in 1905. When working this close to a surface for such a period of time, it begins to speak to you through the marks of those who installed the original work. It told the time of year that the room was installed by paint failures on the cold north wall. It showed work of an apprentice’s hand with plaster drips on some of the details. It showed the joints and methods of assembly. It showed hidden cracks that were repaired. It showed the signature of “Max Thompson” in cursive on the back of a plaster cast. It showed the layout marks written in pencil directly on the wall beneath the paint, one marking “centre.” But most incredibly, after all the years of change had been removed and the original French grey with white relief re-applied, the four walls emanated once more the vibrations that Katherine Fitzgerald Barker envisioned for this very special room over one century ago (image above). We encourage all to visit and find the similarities of the French Room in Michigan City, Indiana, finished in 1905, and Marie Antoinette’s boudoir in Versailles, built in 1768.