Control, Conserve or Condemn: The Evolution of Preserving "Ruin" Plaster
As preservation expands to include more vernacular structures, many of which have simple flat plaster walls and ceilings, constructed with limited funds, and in a state of advanced deterioration, architects and conservators are having to make tough choices regarding whether or not to preserve the plaster in these historic spaces.
Once such example is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, located in a five-story brick tenement. Between its construction in 1863 and the 1930s, nearly 7,000 people from over twenty countries lived in the tiny apartments of 97 Orchard Street. In 1935 the landlord evicted the tenants and sealed off the upper floors, which remained uninhabited until 1988 when the museum took over the building. As a result these apartments became a time capsule of immigrant life in America. The museum is unique in its interpretation of the building and occupants, and its treatment of the ruined apartments in a state of “arrested decay.”
After years of water infiltration, uncontrolled fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and general neglect the plaster walls and ceilings were in poor condition. While several apartments were reconstructed as part of the interpretation of the building, the museum decided to preserve the plaster in other apartments in its “ruined” state. In addition to retaining the authenticity of the apartments, the plaster helps to tell the story of the buildings occupants including changes in aesthetic tastes over time. Plaster in these apartments exhibits cracked and detached plaster, exposed lath, early 20th century repairs, peeling paint, and sagging wallpaper. Over the years conservation treatments were performed on an as-needed basis to stabilize the plaster including plaster washers and small-scale consolidation. The plaster is continuing to fail and the museum is determined to take a more proactive and systematic approach to preserve the remaining historic fabric.
Work has recently been completed in several of the apartments to preserve the plaster ceilings which includes conservation work performed from above and below. The apartments were closed for tours; the wallpaper treated; debris removed from above the ceilings after the floorboards were removed; and the plaster consolidated and re-keyed. This work was performed while ensuring that the ceilings still appeared as ruined.
These conservation treatments are not inexpensive and the conservator, working with the client, needs to determine if there is a “point of no return” on damaged plaster where the balance between price and visitor safety tips towards the complete removal of damaged plaster which is either replaced, or the bare lath left exposed.
This paper discusses the technical challenges of conserving vernacular historic plaster.