In a room with wide bay windows, ceiling rosettes, hand-stamped molding, a pressed-metal fireplace and a posh billiard table, Sally Hopkins is sandpapering the ceiling. High on a scaffold, clad in paint-stained jeans and surrounded by dust sheets, she’s patiently scraping down a dozen layers – and decades – of paint.
Hopkins is in the billiard room of Puyallup’s historic Meeker Mansion, and as she uncovers the hops vines painted 123 years ago on the room’s ceiling, she’s discovering just one more treasure in a search that’s taken more than 40 years and maybe a million dollars – with many more of both still to go.
“It’s never-ending,” says Andy Anderson, historian and volunteer for the Ezra Meeker Historical Society, which rescued Meeker’s house from asbestos-clad obscurity in 1970 and which has been working ever since to restore the 17-room Italianate Victorian to its former glory. “But the money keeps coming often enough ... and as long as there are people willing to be part of (it), it’ll keep going.”
Ezra Meeker built his stately Puyallup home in 1890. A successful hops grower who’d spent his previous years in a log cabin, he commissioned the mansion from Tacoma architects Ferrell and Darmer. The financial crisis of 1893 took its toll, however, and by 1903 he was trying to sell. When his wife, Eliza, died in 1909, Meeker just walked away from the house. He died in 1928.
The Meeker Mansion went through some big identity changes throughout the 20th century. Leased as a hospital in 1912 and bought in 1915 by the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic to house widows and orphans, it still largely kept its character, though the ceilings began to be painted over.
But in 1948 it was sold to the first of a series of doctors who transformed it into a critical care nursing home. That meant lowering ceilings, partitioning hallways, boarding up windows and the back porch, papering and plastering over woodwork, siding the whole exterior in asbestos, and adding a rabbit warren of outside buildings.
Finally in 1970, when the property had been sold and the house threatened with removal, a historical society was formed to buy and save it. Restoration began under what’s now the Ezra Meeker Historical Society.
“It was a close call,” says Anderson, who began as administrator and later turned volunteer for the society after retiring 20 years ago. He’s one of about 50 volunteers who strip paint, do odd jobs, guide tours, and dress up as Victorian servants to cook and serve tea for mansion visitors. Others serve on the board of the nonprofit, raising funds or writing grants to support the restoration.
But the person with perhaps the most fascinating job is Hopkins. A professional art restorer from Portland, she learned her trade at the Meeker, working alongside her father, Kenneth Hopkins, who began uncovering the house’s ornate painted ceilings in the late 1960s. It’s not a full-time job; Hopkins comes in for a week or two at a time whenever the society gets a new grant or donation to pay for her work. With about 10 rooms to cover – the basement, attic and servants’ quarters are the only rooms that wouldn’t have been decorated – Hopkins has spent most of her life working at the Meeker, with each room taking as much as two years to finish.
The job began almost by accident. Once the society removed the dropped ceilings (some 2 feet lower than the original) installed during the nursing home days, they came to the conclusion that the “fancy” decorations mentioned by Meeker in his only three extant letters about the house just weren’t there.
“Over the years, they were covered over with up to 14 layers of paint,” says Anderson. Hopkins’ father, with the eye only a paint restorer can have, spotted part of a frieze under all those layers in a front room, and knew there might be more.
So with a Q-tip dipped in solvents, he (and later Sally) began carefully taking off layer after layer of paint, working through 20th-century latex, earlier enamel and calconite and the oils of the 19th century until they spotted the remains of Victorian-era artwork.
Having established how far down (or up) the original is, Hopkins scrapes off as many layers as possible with a hand-sander, finally working carefully on the last one with a piece of sandpaper. It’s tiring work, craning with arms overhead, and each time she comes she has to build up her endurance from working six to maybe 10 hours a day.
“I’ve had several volunteers,” Hopkins says drily. “None have stayed.”
As she works, Hopkins updates a drawing taped to the wall of where elements are in the ceiling’s design: clouds, sky, pinecone-shaped hops, fingered leaves, trellises. She’s also labeled those parts on the billiard room ceiling, along with each decade’s paintwork, to inform visitors. Some of it is guesswork – noticing paint “shadows” left behind by old paint – or based on historical knowledge, like the fact that Victorians always put the most decorative image over the fireplace. Some parts, where there were leaks and repairs years ago, are completely blank.
Once the ceiling and upper wall frieze is clear, Hopkins traces every pattern and shape. She makes stencils of patterns and takes paint flakes to match colors at the paint shop. Then the whole ceiling gets replastered, and Hopkins repaints it exactly as it was.
“Usually (in other jobs) I like to save the original ceiling, if there’s 70 to 80 percent of the original,” she explains. “In this house, I feel lucky if I have 20 percent of it.”
You can see right away there’s a lot of work still to be done in the billiard room; several other rooms are still to be done. One of the hardest will be the upper hallway, which was damaged by an arson fire in the 1990s, and where a 1920s stenciling hides what Hopkins suspects will be a salmon-and-brown tendril pattern just like in the downstairs hall.
But she’s also discovered another treasure in the hall: a missing room.
“On a bill of sale from 1927 they mention a ‘blue room,’” says Hopkins. “We hadn’t ever found it. But I was redoing the stenciling in the hall and couldn’t make it meet up. I measured for two days straight – and then I noticed a line of nail holes in the floor.”
That line, and the stenciling discrepancy, was the only remaining clue to an archway that once divided the front end of the hall into what Hopkins thinks was a Turkish Nook, a decorative square room in faux-Oriental style popular with the Victorians, and intended for reading – possibly the missing blue room.
The treasure hunt is ongoing in the rest of the house. About 10 years ago, Anderson was looking at a 1904 photograph of the west-side entry room, where visitors now go in. A man was sitting in front of what was clearly a door and window – only in the current location there was only wallpaper. Volunteers peeled the paper back to find plywood, and underneath it the missing door that led to the butler’s pantry behind.
Earlier still, in 1994, Anderson was working with volunteers in the dining room, mentioned by Meeker as the fanciest room but which looked, after its nursing home days, anything but. Only the Italian fireplace tiles, elaborately decorated with burgundy and gold grapes, leaves and pears, with patterned pressed metal surrounds, remained.
A volunteer noticed part of the wall plaster was coming off. They took to it with hammer and screwdrivers, and by the end of the day had uncovered the lavish red oak wainscoting that now rises waist-high around the lozenge-shaped room. The linoleum came off to reveal parquetry mentioned by Meeker, and the upper woodwork was remade to replace what was taken down when the ceiling was lowered.
Other early discoveries include a box of Victorian quilts, stashed in the wallspace of the attic last century for insulation and still in excellent condition. Visitors 10 years ago solved the mystery of who actually painted the Meeker ceilings (Frederick Nelson Atwood, a Chicago theater painter) and his descendants, once traced, turned up a box of Atwood’s original samples, brushes and paint colors in a Spokane storage unit.
And the treasure hunt continues. The two back pantries still have dropped ceilings and tatty wallpaper. The basement, which holds entire storage rooms for roots, fruit and dairy, and the third floor, which houses an attic common room and small, sloping-roof bedrooms for the servants Meeker never had, both have yet to be restored. (They’re also not currently open to the public.) An intercom system leads mysteriously from the billiard room to the library, begging the question of whether it originally also led to the servants’ quarters.
Outside, there’s an even bigger job looming: repainting the exterior. The asbestos siding erected in the 1960s was removed and woodwork refinished in 1999, but now the job needs redoing to preserve the century-old wood. The Society has been quoted $130,000 for the job – a seemingly impossible figure as grant and donation money hasn’t yet recovered from the recession. Even the Trex replacement for the west entry steps has started to weather.
“As you make progress, you have to maintain,” says President Bob Minnich, “and now we’re having to repair restorations we did in the early days.”
The Society also has expansion plans: They recently bought the former dry cleaner on the house’s northwest corner (originally part of the property) and are just waiting for the environmental cleanup of the site to create a permanent home for Meeker’s covered wagon, which he used to reenact and preserve the Oregon Trail across the country. Minnich hopes the site can become a museum of Puyallup history.
What’s ironic about the Meeker Mansion is that while other stately home museums in the rest of the country (think of Portland’s Pittock Mansion, or the Gamble House in Los Angeles) make money on entry fees that range from $8 to $14, the Meeker is still charges just $4.
“The Seattle historical societies send field trips down to us,” Anderson says proudly. “And they always ask why we don’t charge more. But this is Puyallup. You can’t charge $7 or people won’t come in. I’ve heard people complain even about $4.”
To supplement the low entry fee, the society also makes a little money renting the mansion out for events. Tea parties, like a recent Downton Abbey-themed birthday party, are perfect in the space, with volunteers in gingham aprons and fluffy white caps pouring tea into fine bone china and serving cucumber sandwiches to elegantly dressed guests.
But the rest of the money has to come bit by bit – such as a possible $10,000 from the Pierce County restoration fund this spring to begin work on the exterior.
“I think we’ve got another generation of work ahead of us,” says Minnich. “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge.”
IF YOU GO
The Meeker Mansion
What: The mansion is open for public visits, special events and tea party rentals.
When: Open noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
Where: 312 Spring St., Puyallup
Entry: $4/$3/$2; tea parties $12 per person
Information: 253-848-1770, meekermansion.org
EVENTS FOR 2013
May 11 and 12: Mother’s Day Teas, 12:30, 2 and 3:30 p.m.
June 1, Sept. 14 and Nov. 9: Psychic Fair, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
June 21-23: Meeker Days festival
July 4: Family Social 2-5 p.m.
Aug. 10: Yard and Antique Sale, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Oct. 12: Cider Squeeze, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Oct. 26: “Downton Abbey” Tea
Nov. 29-Dec. 22: Christmas decorations
Dec. 8: Christmas Tea, 1:30 p.m.
Dec. 14: Santa Breakfast, 10 a.m.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org/art