North Coast Journal


Carson Mansion, take two

by Wally Graves

This past November Eureka artist George Herd was stunned to read in The North Coast Journal my story on the William and Sarah Carson Mansion, which reported "an unfortunate post-Carson ceiling of multicolored vines" that lacked "authenticity" had been painted over during an ongoing "authentic restoration" of the famous Victorian mansion.

Herd was stunned because in the mid-1980s he had not only discovered those "multicolored vines" beneath later layers of ceiling, but had spent arduous weeks restoring their original gold leaf design on that parlor ceiling.
He called the Journal.

I, in turn, called Herd. I had failed to discover that he'd worked for the mansion's owner -- the Ingomar Club -- as a gardener and maintenance man, and in his spare time had done restoration on the mansion.

Somewhere in there lay a breakdown in continuity, induced in part -- I suspected -- by the Ingomar's practice of consummate privacy even among the members, who for the November story were willing to talk to me about the mansion only if their anonymity were preserved.

I visited Herd in his restored Victorian on Eureka's E Street. The house is embellished with art and murals from Herd's brush and pen, and with restored cabinetry and furniture gleaned from earlier times.

Like William Carson's forebears, Herd, 61, hails from Scotland. At age 15 in his native Leslie Fife across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, Herd was apprenticed for five years in painting, paper hanging, sign writing, gilding, graining, murals and interior restoration. He worked in Scottish National Trust palaces, castles, mansions and priories, and was well-versed in the building techniques of Carson's day.
He served a hitch in England's oldest regiment, the Life Guards, and during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 found himself in Egypt "painting gold rampant lions on a brown-tan background" in the service of Her Majesty.

In 1964 Herd and his wife came to Hollywood where he worked for a decade as a high-powered production artist. He gave that up in the mid-'70s for the relative tranquility of the North Coast.

On Herd's parlor ceiling glows a replica of the now-lost Carson parlor decoration.

It is reconstructed from templates and acetate transparencies preserved from his Carson Mansion days.

The gold leaf design appears not in the slightest garish, though its fancy may have been a bit much for Sarah Carson who -- so the story goes -- regarded such decor as more appropriate to "Second Street brothels" than to her baronial home.

The gold-highlighted design in the mansion was originally set between blue moldings with a scarlet surround above a black and rose wallpaper flecked with silver. At some later time -- probably after Carson's death in 1912 -- the ceiling, darkened with nicotine tar, wood smoke, and gas and candle soot, was scrubbed down and covered with a rough-toothed painted canvas, shorn of design.

The original gold leaf remained hidden till Herd, working under instructions from Club Manager Chuck Yeltin, pierced the ceiling in search of concealed wiring that ran between two overhead fixtures, one of which had been disconnected and its wires tucked away.

Herd was startled to discover the canvas and delighted to see hints of the lost decoration.

He was given permission to peel the canvas away, and as he did, the imprint of the unknown art stuck to the top of the peeled canvas, with some of the gold leaf and greens and blues remaining faintly in place on the original plaster.

"A gorgeous ceiling," Herd recalls. "Twigs and vines of avocado green and azure blue, and 23-carat gilt, bronzed to give dimension to oak leaf clusters."

Club members, including the late builder and supplier Ernie Pierson and architect Bud Sauble, were enthused, Herd said, so he stripped the ceiling and restored the twig-and-leaf decoration, doing a good part of it after hours.

Carson's original leaf and vine colors, as well as the surrounding blue molding and scarlet cornice, were all taken, Herd discovered, from identical colors in the parlor's stained-glass windows -- a common coordination in Victorian homes.

Herd's report differs remarkably from the current restorers' who'd told me for the November story that they had "discovered" the parlor moldings' "true colors" through a pair of French bisque statuettes found in storage, and they had restored the moldings to their "original ashes of roses, dark rose, blue-green, and butter yellow."

Whom to believe? Did two different restorers discover two different time periods? And if so, which period came first?

I called architect Sauble.

He remembered, and confirmed, Herd's restoration, adding that he believed the original colors were even stronger than Herd's redone decoration suggested. "I encouraged George to restore them with bolder colors," Sauble recalled.

Herd himself recollects a member peeking in at his work and remarking, "George, it's a little bright up there."

"I got no choice," Herd told the member. "I'm going by the colors off the stained glass."

Herd said that he was trying to give the "impression" of the original colors, rather than the original colors themselves, "like the famous ceiling in ancient Egypt [the Queen's Tomb in the Valley of the Kings] where the Sky Goddess is portrayed in lines, rather than in solid."

Herd lacked the proper "badger brush" and "agate" used by professionals to dull the gold leaf for a three-dimensional effect, but he managed with care.

With the ceiling finished, Herd turned to the parlor walls.

Given its choice of colors, the club's restoration committee chose what Herd (as well as Sauble) regarded as an inauthentic purple, and at that point, Herd confessed, he was becoming "mentally finished with the Ingomar Club."

"There's two kinds of Victorian," Herd said. "The Actual and the Ideal." He believes that today's "Victorian" restorers lean too much to an ideal of complicated colors and patterns that, in actuality, were unavailable to Victorian decorators.

Not long after finishing the parlor, Herd left, and with his departure the confirmed authenticity of the original decorations was forgotten.

"I was surprised when Herd's restorations were painted out," Sauble told me.

Herd said, "They weren't my decorations. They were William Carson's idea, and, to me, his idea is still alive."

Herd has other questions about today's ongoing restoration.

For one thing, he told me, the ceiling roses and moldings that surround the two parlor light fixtures actually represent musicians and lyres, which convinces him that the current designation of "parlor" should be reversed with the "music room" that lies on the other side of the mansion's main hall. "The music motifs in the ceiling rose, and cornice, tells you what Carson meant that room to be -- the music room," he said, a motif familiar to Herd in European homes.

Another question concerns the "two tones of cream" that the current restorers have applied to ceilings and moldings throughout the ground and second floor.

"In those days," Herd told me, "plaster ceilings were whitened with a chalky water-based paint." He believes that the "two tones of cream" presumably discovered by the current restorers as "original" may more likely be white ceilings that have darkened in a combination of aging, and of cigarette tar and wood smoke. This effect is combined with -- in the case of the parlor ceiling -- a darkening of the white plaster when the gold leaf and other colors were scarred and bled across the surface as it was scraped before applying the canvas overlay.

This raises the possibility that, throughout the mansion, other original Carson ceiling decorations may have been painted out, either early after Carson's death or by the current restorers. Herd's experience with similar buildings in Scotland tells him that ceiling decoration was the norm.

In his four years with the Ingomar Club, when he wasn't gardening, Herd restored furniture; he rescued a light fixture that had been carelessly stored outside and which now hangs in the parlor; in the small downstairs morning room he painted murals, stripped and restored woodwork, restored and painted wainscoting, and refinished the ceiling. He did similar restoration in a second-floor office, including "scumbling," a technique of brushing near-opaque paint over a tacky underlay to give it an antique depth.

Herd was even encouraged by Pierson to paint a waterfall on the wall of a downstairs urinal as a visual aid, because -- as Pierson told him, -- "some of the old guys take far too long."

"You can't be serious," Herd said.

"George. I want it."

So Pierson got his murinal.

Pierson's good-hearted efforts to transform the old mansion into a contemporary men's club seemed to have disturbed the more historically sensitive members.

"Ernie Pierson was our biggest bugaboo," Sauble told me. Pierson not only gave most generously to the club's restoration, but -- as club members sometimes good naturedly cautioned, "Ernie, you got all your taste in your mouth."

This refrain sounded familiar to me. My anonymous informants for the November story had more than once praised the late Pierson's energy and enthusiasm for the mansion, while lamenting what they regarded as his seriously wrongheaded shortcuts, like the rather slapdash original addition raised in the '50s, which was later extensively redone. And the grass cloth wall coverings in the halls and stairwell, since removed.

And herein lies a possible answer to why the current restorers lost no time in painting over Herd's authentic parlor restoration: Having winced at some of Pierson's earlier efforts at remodeling, they may have too hastily regarded Herd's restoration as merely another Pierson caprice.

The 17th century French essayist, François Duc de La Rochefoucauld, once commented, "History never embraces more than a small part of reality."

It appears that the "reality" of the Carson Mansion is still up for grabs.

Comments on this story? E-mail the Journal
Return to the January North Coast Journal

North Coast Journal weekly banner