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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Restorer savors reviving U.S. House grandeur

Local expert joins pride-filled project.
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives
U.S House of Representatives

PHOTO: Restoration expert Bill Robillard stands with an 1857 Walter desk that he brought home to restore after working on an extensive project on the dais of the U.S. House of Representatives. Warren Gerds photo

LITTLE RAPIDS, Wis., (WFRV) – Bill Robillard received a telephone call from J. Tredway Childress, restoration specialist and finisher at the U.S. House of Representatives: Would he be interested in coming to Washington, D.C., to work on the restoration of the House floor dais?

“Of course for me, both personally and professionally, goodness, it was a dream come true,” Robillard said in an interview.

Working on the five-week project with a drop-dead deadline would be four restorers on the House staff and one other person from the entire United States, an outsider – Robillard. How cool is that?

“Exactly. When that call comes in, how do you… It’s an incredible range of feelings when that happens. It’s incredible. You certainly don’t go, ‘Oh, let me think about it. We were going to go up north’…”

Robillard is one of those people who is retired, but not. He was an engineer with IBM for 30 years. He engineered sophisticated robotics systems. He retired from IBM. Short form of his story: He’d gotten into woodworking, then got deeper and deeper into woodworking. That evolved into restoration. The more he got into restoration, the more his expertise mounted.

Childress knew all this.

“He had dialed my number for a couple of reasons. One, we have almost the identical formal education history. We both went to the National Institute of Wood Finishing, which is run by a person who had interned at the Smithsonian. We then went through a variety of workshops run by the head conservator at the Smithsonian at that time, Don Williams. Separate from the Smithsonian. He just did these on his own. And I had been invited out to work at the House a couple of years ago. So we had worked together, and I had an established track record.”

The reason

The restoration of the three-tier dais, also called a rostrum, was necessary because it “was really falling into a state,” Robillard said. “I won’t say ‘of disrepair.’ But it really didn’t reflect the stature of the country. That sounds coded, but what that means is over the course of decades various types of maintenances had been performed on the wood so that by the time we’re 70 years later, it looked dulled and scratched and very unbecoming. And the more we looked at it, at least when I saw it, it was more, ‘Boy, this definitely needs to be done.’ I think the advent of HD television also plays heavily in the mix here because all of those obscurities and scratches, etc., that one might not see, might be obscured, aren’t anymore.”

Over the course of years, surfaces had been scratched and darkened. There were handprints. “It really looked kind of dingy and shabby. There was no longer any way to recover that old coating, if you will. There was no way to bring it back…

“It’s the people’s House. The floor is the people’s House, and it didn’t represent the grandeur of the country… Not only could anyone on the floor see it, now people worldwide (via high-definition TV) would see that it really didn’t look the way that it should.”

Robillard joined the other four restorers in working eight to nine-hour shifts, five to six days a week. At first, they worked at night because of possible odors from the stripping process.

The restorers were careful about sprays and spillages. They covered things.

Robillard said, “You have to be careful about everything because my understanding is the carpeting alone is over a million dollars. You couldn’t have any oopses. Of course, in the spraying we used green products and safe products, but we also ran large carbon filters. That was always on your mind, safety and to make certain that nothing inappropriate happened. Lots of precautions, lots of precautions.”

The Capitol building dates to the mid-1800s, but the restorers focused on the heart of the much-used House floor.

Robillard said, “The walnut dais that we worked on is relatively young. It was put in place in the early ’50s. In this particular engagement, it isn’t that the wooden artifacts themselves are very, very old, it’s rather all of the people in history who have touched them. And we went out of our way – any signatures, anything of any potential historical value had to be saved. A large part of the project was making sure that we didn’t obscure or lose any shred of history from anyone who has been involved on the dais, the parliamentarian to pages to clerks to anyone. I don’t know if there are any presidential signatures there – I didn’t see any – but once someone signs something into the wood or things of that nature, those things are saved.”

Security

“Before you start, you have to go into the Capitol police, and that is for a background security check, which takes about three days. Now, I’ve been in the Air Force, I had a top secret clearance, so that was another little piece I brought. That helped. To get onto the House floor, there are four checks. We would drive in in the morning and have to go through a vehicle check. Then you drive into another portion, the parking portion, that’s another stop and verbal confirm. Then you go through a metal detector and then finally by the time you got to the House floor there was another set of Capitol police who not only checked you but watched every thing you did. And videotaped. I have one picture of Tredway sitting on the floor doing something. There’s a police officer watching him; he’s got his Glock on his holster. We did some night shift work to start. One of the people had eaten a half a cookie. He set down the other half of the cookie. It’s like 1 in the morning. You think no one’s there, and two minutes later, in walks one of the officers and says, ‘There’s no eating down on the House floor.’ In that case, they weren’t physically watching us at that moment, but we were being watched through some monitors. I know, ‘Can you refinish with a gun to your head?’ Literally. That’s a true test of professionalism.” Robillard laughed heartily at his joke.

Sense of importance

Robillard felt connected to history of the past and history in the making.

“Absolutely. No question about it. You cannot walk on the House floor – at least from my perspective – and not be inundated with the power and the history of that room. There’s just no way. You’re touching the same podium that JFK and Ronald Reagan and all the presidents touched from the ’50s on. And you can’t help but reflect on that as you’re working on the project. You try to be the technician as you’re working on it, but certainly you’re aware that it’s old history, current history and ongoing history. You have an opportunity to put your fingerprints on it, so to speak, and you’re now part of the ongoing history, because the history is still being written on the dais. You’re working on something that everybody in the world will see. It’s probably the most televised, most visible, most recognized wooden artifact, arguably, in the world. So you just can’t help but feel the power of working on something of that stature. I’ve worked on pieces that have been worth tens of thousands of dollars, but never something that’s priceless. And that’s a powerful feeling, a wonderful feeling.”

Why him?

“The runway for this project was five weeks. It had to be started at the beginning of August and completed by the first week of September because Congress was coming back in session. And there were a lot of unknowns in this. You’re working with coatings that had been put on over a span of almost 70 years. So as I talked to the senior restorer, Tredway Childress, he said, ‘I would like you to come out and help, but I’d also like some of your expertise. I’d like to double check the ideas I have. I think they’re right, but, you know, having another set of eyes outside of our restoration team would be really helpful because there’s not going to be any time to go backwards, there’s not going to be any time to re-do much. We have to be 100 percent certain because we have Congress (coming back).’ Of course, at that time, Syria was happening. So there was also Plan B: Maybe we have to button it up, maybe they have to come in sooner. So that was the piece that I brought. And since we had identical education backgrounds, I think he felt fairly confident in my ability to offer my opinion. And at times he did take it.”

Role of HD television

The technological impact may be surprising to you. The look of the dais through HD cameras was critical in the project.

“The trickiest part that we had to do was when the project was nearly completed. We went down to the studios in the Capitol to look at the dais through HD television. The dais didn’t look on HD television the way it looked when you were standing looking at it in person. It looked not wonderful. It had to do with the way that all of the various colors in the room were brought together and a bunch of technical reasons that aren’t important right now. But when you looked at it, it just didn’t look right. When we looked at the dais through HD television, the colors didn’t match. HDTV takes all of the colorization of the area and when it comes through the television it just looks slightly different. So the folks at the Capitol and we were not satisfied with the result. ‘We need to shift color’ so that it looks perfect on television. Re-stripping was not a possibility. Going backwards was never a possibility.

“So the folks in the television studios asked us to reach into our magic bag and begin to shift the colors around so that it looked, on HD television, stunning and magnificent – but not so stunning and magnificent that it took away from the person speaking. That’s a bit of a fine line, so we went back down, mixed up some potions, re-applied them and then we were able to dial in the colors to exactly what looked perfect on HDTV. That’s tricky. That was very tricky.”

Robillard said he put on his organic chemistry hat in working with the head restorer.

“His having another practiced restorer was really very helpful because restoration is not like cooking a recipe. It’s more an art. It’s applied science, an art and a science.”

Adjustment came in the layers of clear coating that the light bounces off of.

“We had to add colorization to the coating so it would shift the color.”

Not all the surfaces are the same. That factored in.

“On the lower portion of the dais, the wood reacts slightly different. Again, it’s an art form, not a science. Otherwise it would just be a case that anyone can do it. That wood reacted differently than the middle and the upper. There were three adjustments on the bottom, nothing on the upper, one on the middle – and that brought them all together. We collaborated on this and came up with what we thought would be the right colors, and it worked.”

Robillard felt an obligation to be fastidious.

“I can’t emphasize enough it’s the people’s House, and you want it to be perfect.”

Going in, Robillard did not know how the dais looked through the television camera would affect the restoration work.

“That was new learning. In fact, I’ve now learned a new technique. If I have a tight color match, I’ll take an HD camera now and I’ll take a picture because HD is much less forgiving in giving the exact in a way that the human eye doesn’t. Interesting – after we tuned the dais in on HD, when you look at it on the floor live now, you go, ‘You know, that looks a lot better. I don’t know why, but it just looks a lot better. And I thought it was great before.’ So it’s a wonderful working tool as well.”

Original craftsmanship

“That is absolutely right on. There are areas along the low tier that are all hand carved. All of the upper banister lower moldings are hand carved. You can’t help but stop and look at that craftsmanship and just admire it. It’s incredible craftsmanship. And the entire dais is that as well. All of the lettering – there are five words around the lower dais that are all hand carved. All of the walnut is book matched. That means someone had taken the time to slick each veneer and keep track of them and make sure that they appeared in what we would call a book match in an eye-pleasing fashion. So it was remarkable, the amount of work that was done.”

The workshops

Robillard said 90 percent of the dais restoration work took place on the House floor. Things didn’t lend themselves to be moved. The project was the tip of an iceberg.

Robillard said, “There are 164,000 pieces of furniture between the House and the Capitol, not including the Senate side. They do a range from everyday types of repairs to something much more historic. It just depends. Under the Rayburn Building are a woodworking shop, a restoration shop, a stone mason shop, a drapery shop, an upholstery shop, a molding shop, a gold leafing department, a painting department. These are relatively large. They can do anything. It’s a city within as city almost.”

The future – the dais

“We had to build in a maintenance regime so that 50 years from now it will look the same. They’ll have the ability to go and touch up scratches. So it was done very differently than originally. We know a lot more now. (As for life span) I would be very disappointed if it wasn’t 100 years. Now, that’s not saying there won’t be maintenance, but now there’s an ability to touch up so it’s very, very attractive for a very, very long time.”

The future – his

Robillard feels he’ll be called on for other restoration projects in Washington.

Meantime, he has items in his home workshop that need attention. (His website is www.encore-restores.com). Of note is a desk that is a companion to a chair he previously restored.

“I came home from Washington with another piece of history from the House floor. In 1857, when the chamber first opened, a new set of chairs and desks were put in the new chamber. They were designed by an individual named Thomas Walter, who was chief architect of the Capitol at that time. Enormous amounts of history here. To get a sense of how old this is, this piece was built and put on the floor when Minnesota became the 32nd state. We were negotiating with Sioux Indians. The Civil War had not occurred yet. And it sat on the floor until 1870. So I’m sure there were some pretty heated discussions from the chair and around these desks at that period because it was a pretty tumultuous time.”

Looking back

Since returning home, Robillard has tuned in on action on the House floor.

“I look with beaming pride and a touch of humility. But also evaluating my own work – our work as a team – and I’m very pleased. We call one another and it’s, ‘What do you think?’ ‘What do you think?’ And everyone’s quite pleased with it. You’ll notice, if you watch, it looks different. Next time the viewers watch, they will see that the dais doesn’t quite match the rest (like the wood around the 18 doors). It’s something very new, and it stands out quite a bit. In my opinion, it looks fabulous. But I guess I have a bias.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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