Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Resplendent Restoration

Last week the History Center dedicated the Old City Hall Building’s former City Council Chambers and Courtroom as the newly restored Shields Room. The celebration marks the culmination of eight years, over $250,000, and the efforts of hundreds of individuals to return the room to its turn of the last century Victorian grandeur.

James and Margaret Shields, the Journal Gazette Foundation, the Edwin M. and Mary McCrea Wilson Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and many individual donors provided support for the restoration. The Shields Room, so named after the title supporters of the project, is now one of the finest galleries and banquet rooms to be found anywhere in Fort Wayne, or northeast Indiana for that matter.

Although the Old City Hall Building, one of the state’s finest examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, was built in 1893 for a then whopping $63,000, historians do not believe that the room was lavishly decorated at that time. Rather, it is believed that the magnificent decoration that the room now bears was done around 1900. The earliest photograph of the room, taken in May 1901 to commemorate the installation of a new City Council, shows the room’s walls and ceiling splendidly decorated with the design it has today. The complex geometrical and swooping floral patterns bristling with gold leaf are clearly visible in that image.
Oddly enough, it is believed that the room and these designs were entirely painted over shortly before World War I. In its place, an extremely modest border design was painted right above the wainscoting, demonstrating an odd hybrid design of Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts elements. This began a sad progression of painting the room several times, as it morphed over the decades from white to pale green, light yellow, off white, black, and white.The restoration started in 2003 when the Journal Gazette Foundation provided the initial seed monies for the project. This allowed restorationists to travel back in time as they methodically stripped layer after layer of over painting, which had been applied over the past nearly 100 years, until they reached their target layer from the year 1900. After finding the original designs and patterns, restorationists conducted microscopic analysis on paint fragments to determine the original coloration. The original gold leaf was also found aplenty during the investigation. After uncovering nearly two dozen patterns in their entireties, multipart stencils were made for each and the actual renovation began.Approximately one eighth of the room was restored in 2004, a reveal slice allowing the public to see what was possible if funding became available to restore the remaining seven eighths of the room.After taking a brief hiatus from the project to allow a new $1 million energy efficient heating and air conditioning system to be installed, the restoration recommenced in summer 2009. All of the restoration above the woodwork was completed by fall 2009. The golden oak wainscoting and trim, found throughout the room and in the main entryway, posed another set of challenges. Nearly 100 individual panels were split, broken, or otherwise unsalvageable for the restoration and had to be replaced. Tall and wide, one quarter inch, “quartersawn” oak boards, were costly around the turn of the last century, and are very rare and expensive today. Fortunately, similar boards were located in Michigan at a company specializing in exotic lumber. Craftsmen replaced all the necessary boards and even rebuilt a large section of walling, which had been unceremoniously covered with foam board several decades ago. The entire woodwork was stripped, stained, and fabulously refinished. The result truly makes the room glow, aided by the installation of 48 period lighting fixtures including seven dual gas and electrically lit “quad-globes.” Although the room does not utilize actual gaslights, the replica gaslights shimmer and dance with a striking low wattage flicker wire, mimicking the bygone ambience of yesteryear. Finally, in late 2010, the second floor entryway to the room was restored and the original stenciling, “City Council [Room] 200,” was applied. The project finished when 24 period canvas roller shades were installed just in time for the 2010 Festival of Gingerbread.
The restoration of the Shields Room is a signature component of nearly $2.5 million in capital improvements the History Center has recently made to its facilities. I encourage you to visit the museum to experience the restored room and step into the past, back to a time when the opulence and resplendence of public buildings were visible manifestations of our community’s sense of pride and promise for the future.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fort Wayne's Earliest Aviation Event

One of the most intruiging images in the History Center's collection is a copy of a damaged ambrotype from 1859, depicting what is thought to be Fort Wayne's earliest aviation event - the launching of a balloon from what appears to be a central part of Fort Wayne. In August of that year, Professor W. D. Bannister was induced to visit the city after a group of citizens raised $419.22 to pay him to make the ascension. A newspaper of the time commented that Bannisterhad been the partner of "the unfortunate Thurston," who had made an unplanned ascension a year earlier in Ohio by holding onto the valve of a balloon with no basket or ballast. He could not let go, and his body was found six months later in poor condition. Danger surrounded the making of such flights in this era, which only added to the public's excitement.
According to the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, the ascension took place at a site near Barr and Main streets because of its proximity to a gas main that was needed to inflate the balloon with 18,000 cubic feet of natural gas. The launch went unexpectedly well. Bannister took off about 11 in the morning of August 30, floating eastward into Ohio to Delphos. There he encountered a thunderstorm, prompting him to take the balloon higher to avoid the lightning. In the process, the balloon lost much of its gas, and the professor was forced to land near Ada, Ohio, a distance of some 100 miles from Fort Wayne. The next day he returned to the city in triumph with his balloon.
The above ambrotype presents several questions. Unfortunately, the History Center owns only a copy, and the location of the original is not known. Therefore, we cannot enhance the image to make it more clear. Ambrotypes were made on glass with a painted backing that often became chipped, especially when images were taken out of their cases.
Several landmarks are visible which help us to date the image, the most prominent being the distinctive edifice of First Presbyterian Church, which can be seen in the upper left. The church stood on the south side of Berry Street at the east side of Clinton Street. In the foreground a sign with "Grocery" can clearly be seen, so we know the image has not been reversed. These points establish that the camera is looking southeastward in the direction of the church. The buildings in the foreground are apparently situated on Calhoun Street, just south of Main, which indicate that the balloon probably occupies a place in Courthouse Square. So here is the problem: this location does not square with the newspaper account that the launch took place at Barr and Main. So, either the newspaper was wrong and the balloon took off from the courthouse, or, more likely, we may be looking at the celebration of Bannister's return on August 31, rather than his launch on the 30th.
In any case, this ambrotype is one of the earliest outdoor images of Fort Wayne that we can actually date, and thus it occupies an important place in the history of photojournalism of our city.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Flying High in Fort Wayne

It’s hard to imagine that air travel has only been around for about 108 years.

Even harder to believe is that in 1900, Wilbur Wright told his brother Orville that “not within a thousand years will man every fly.” But 69 years later, Americans put men on the moon.

The air travel that the Wright Brothers began was nothing like what we have today. You were lucky if you made it off the ground and even luckier if you and your plane both landed in one piece.

It’s always great to see kids on the second floor of the History Center looking at the display of Fort Wayne aeronautical history. The looks on their faces when they see the propeller… or realize the flimsiness of early airplanes…or model the pilot goggles in the hands-on display case… are priceless and more than a little comical when they try to fathom how truly primitive airplanes were at the beginning of the 20th century.

The theme of my blog posts thus far has been in finding ways to make history more alive for children and relate the past to the present. The history of flight lends itself well to this sort of activity.

When you’re out on a jaunt to view historical markers (see my late December post), you should venture over to Memorial Park to look at the statue dedicated to Art Smith. Smith was quite the aviation adventurer. Others might say he was the epitome of the thought that there’s a fine line between courage and stupidity.

But for Smith it was “no guts, no glory” and also no money to repay the debt he owed his parents for the money they borrowed against their home and property to finance the building of his first airplanes. He had great need to be a success. He also was working to get enough money to finance an ocular procedure for his father, whose construction business had started to “take off” (no pun intended) about the same time that he began to go blind.

Rachel Sherwood Roberts wrote a biography of Smith that was excerpted in the Fall, 1998 issue of “Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History”, a publication of the Indiana Historical Society. You can find the article on-line at The Air Mail Pioneers web site is a wonderful look back to the beginnings of this service of the USPS.

Smith was known as “The Smash-Up Kid” in the early days of his career. You can probably guess why. He crashed his plane a number of times but finally made a successful flight from Fort Wayne to New Haven. His nickname changed to “Bird Boy” after that. He flew for shows and exhibitions, once earning $10,000 for two flights at the Texas State Fair. He gained in popularity, becoming a major hit in Japan. The Japanese considered him a god and bestowed a number of medals and honors on him for flights that lasted no more than 10 minutes at most.

The History Center has a letter written in blood (not on display due to its fragility) by a Japanese youth begging Smith to take him up for a flight.

Smith had a long-standing relationship with Aimee Cour. But his fiancee’s father refused to allow them to marry so they eloped—making an emergency landing and then taking off again-- only to crash land outside Hillsdale, MI.

According to Roger Myers, curator of the Fort Wayne Aviation Museum at FWIA, for the past 27 years, Amy’s dress caught on the controls, causing the crash. There was a furniture truck in the area, hauling a load of mattresses. The resourceful driver put the couple on his load and drove them into town where they were married later that day side by side as they recovered from their injuries. The airport’s museum has a photo of the wedding on display and a replica of Smith’s plane hangs over the airport’s atrium.

Smith continued flying but his work took a toll on the marriage and eventually he and his bride divorced. Headlines of the day, according to Myers, accused him of having a swelled head and Smith claimed to have seen Aimee in the company of another man.

He continued his career as a flight instructor during World War I. Accounts vary as to why he was rejected for military service but the most common are that he was a. too short or b. crashed too often.

After the war Smith joined the US Air Mail Service and flew the Chicago to Cleveland route. He was killed in a crash on February 12,1926 near Montpelier, OH after encountering fog and ice between Waterloo, IN and Bryan, OH.

If your children enjoy flying, a trip to Smith’s statue in Memorial Park is the first stop on a day devoted to airline travel. The monument was designed by James Novelli and is a 40-foot shaft of Vermont granite topped by a young man standing on a globe, face to the sky, with wings and a flying ace’s helmet.

Then come on over to the History Center to look at the aviation display and check out the books. Follow that with a drive up to Smith Field or south to Fort Wayne International Airport to learn more about the history of aviation in Fort Wayne. It will be a great day for the family.

Fort Wayne International’s Aviation Museum is open for private tours by calling Judy Lake, volunteer coordinator, at 747-4146. Myers was Delta station manager at FWIA for 44 years and served in WWII as a bombardier.

Other web links you may want to view are: