As with any piece of furniture that receives frequent use, the challenge is to preserve and protect the historic Senate Chamber desks for future generations. The question faced by the Office of Senate Curator was how to approach this task. The desks posed a particular conservation challenge because they are both historic artifacts and important objects of everyday use on the floor of the Senate. In 1997 furniture conservators completed an extensive analysis of the components and conditions of each desk. The study revealed that many of the desks were subject to similar forms of damage and wear. These included:
broken or missing decorative elements;
inconsistent finish treatment;
loose moldings, cracks in the inkwell boxes;
abrasions on the drawer front caused by impact from the chair arms;
broken spindles on the shelves; and
gouges in the desk feet.
Based on the conservator’s report, the Office of Senate Curator developed a multi-year project to restore the desks and preserve them from further damage. The project started in 1998 and concluded in December 2005, with at least ten desks treated each year. The repairs employed professional conservation standards, and sought to minimize the appearance of any necessary patch or fill. In addition, protective measures were developed to protect vital areas of the desks from future damage. Removable metal toe caps were added to the desk feet, which have sustained extensive wear. These caps closely follow the original design of the feet, and are painted to make them as inconspicuous as possible.
Another protective measure was the addition of heavy-gauge Mylar sheeting placed in the desk drawers to protect the delicate signatures inside them. For nearly one hundred years, senators have carved or written their names in the drawers of their assigned desks to commemorate their occupancy. As the drawers are opened and closed, items inside abrade these signatures.
In addition to a thorough, top-quality conservation of the 100 Senate Chamber desks, the project also produced extensive documentation. Conservators provided a detailed report for each desk that included the pre-conservation condition, construction details, wood types, detailed measurements, as well as complete information on the treatment given to each desk.
Long Term Benefits
The conservation project has greatly improved the appearance of the desks, and has also identified and isolated the causes of deterioration. The conservation project provided the highest level of protection to the desks as they are used on a regular basis, and helped ensure the preservation of the desks for the future.