The French Room
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 no other in the mansion. That room is The French Room.
As we step back in time through the eras of design and delight we course 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 felt amidst the Trianon Garden, in Le Petit Trianon during a visit to Versailles.
Built in the Trianon gardens, by architect of King Louis the XVI, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, for the Queen Marie Antoinette whom requested such an escape beyond the walls of the Grand Trianon. This escape, to the Petit Trianon, allowed her to exist in a creative space that had less boundaries and rules as the queen faced daily. This space had many rooms, one which was the boudoir of Marie Antoinette (image above) and that which strongly caught the eye of Katherine Fitzgerald Barker. The designs on the wall of the boudoir were made of elegant and whimsical plaster design bordering all sections of the walls. This was 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 their Michigan City,
Gilded Age mansion. Architect, Fredrick Wainright Perkins, planned this room according to the precise details that lived in the Queen’s boudoir across the ocean in Versailles (image above).
Master carvers produced designs then as they do now. These are hand carved designs in a medium [clay or wood] and transferred, in form, to a usable mould. This mould is that used to cast an exact replica of the original carved design, time and time again by using a pourable plaster compound. Whilst the plaster material is virtually unchanged the molding material has evolved through time: from utilizing gallons upon gallons of Hyde glue, an animal collagen based compound, and waxes, we have now moved toward 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 that of the boudoir in Le Petit Trianon. From 1750 to 1905 to today the casting and replication of details followed virtually the same order of operations. We can venture to guess that in order to replicate the boudoirs wall designs, a master carver in the states would utilize reference photos to produce the likeness of those designs in Le Petit Trianon of Versailles.
We can not anticipate the changes a room will go through once that space 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 and 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. Through these changes and many layers of primer, the master carvers hand became invisible hiding under as little as 12 layers of paint. Not only were the details of the room covered in layers of thick paint, there also existed a constant water leak that had caused irreparable damage to the majority of the South eastern corner of the room. Behind the many layers of paint, which served as a cast, the original gypsum designs were crumbling to powder and falling off the wall. The thick paint and the water-damaged walls gave queue to the Barker Family, it was time to bring back the original luster of the French Room in this beautiful Michigan City iconic Gilded Age mansion.
From 2022 -2023 the Terrawood team stripped all layers of paint from each wall, revealing not only the original color, but the striking details and sharpened shapes of the original makershand. The team also removed and recreated all water damaged designs and returned them in cast plaster as it was in 1905. When working this close to a surface for such a period of time, it begins to speak to you through the mark 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 apprentices 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 performed in pencil directly on the wall beneath the paint, this marks “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 F 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 to that of Marie Antoinette’s boudoir in Versailles built in 1750.