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TideWriters Tales
Floor Coverings ~ Walking on Art ~ At Ash Lawn, Highland

     At the same time that Virginia is celebrating a new governor, work is progressing on the restoration of a former governor’s home. And, while we’re at it, let’s mention that the former governor was also a former senator, ambassador, and twice-elected U.S. president.

     James Monroe, the bearer of all these prestigious titles, owned a property he referred to as “Highland”, now known as Ash Lawn-Highland, near Monticello and Charlottesville. He owned this property from 1799 through the early 1820s. Subsequent owners of the plantation continued to enlarge the house throughout the 19th century to become the historic house museum and working farm recognized by visitors today.

     Changes are apparent throughout Monroe’s original section of the house. Scholarly research and documentation continue as interior finishes and furnishings are being reevaluated throughout. Particular attention is being paid to the floor-coverings. Monroe, being a more affluent gentleman, undoubtedly had his rooms furnished with fitted carpets, canvas floorcloths, and rugs, though, during the summer months grass matting may also have been a choice. Appropriate modern reproductions are being installed, so that visitors to the property can see what Monroe might well have had on his floors.

     Mary Lou Davis, noted conservator and decorative painter of historical finishes, is currently at Ash Lawn-Highland creating a correct reproduction of an early 19th century floorcloth, to be used in the dining room. Ms. Davis has long been recognized as a master restorationist. 

     Her career began years ago at the Dooley Mansion in Richmond, Virginia. Ms. Davis worked with other dedicated amateurs to restore the house’s fine European furnishings before it was opened as a museum. From there, she became an apprentice for an antiques restoration company, again, in Virginia. This time, though, she was working with fine European craftsmen who had perfected their trade some 30 years earlier. In the beginning, much of her work was rejected by them, but Mary Lou Davis did not give up. She learned by watching these master craftsmen work. Her perseverance paid off as her skills improved, and they came to accept her work, as well. Ms. Davis went on to hold a cabinet-making position at Old Sturbridge Village in Deerfield, Massachusetts. It was her job to demonstrate period construction techniques while reproducing historical furniture. And, in addition, she began receiving commissions to restore furniture. After while, her interest shifted to architectural elements and to conservation.

     In addition to her many projects, Mary Lou Davis continues to teach conservation methods for painted finishes at the Smithsonian Institute’s Conservation Analytical Laboratory. 

     What exactly is a floorcloth? It is a decoratively painted canvas floor covering, still referred to as oil cloth in England, perhaps because all painting was originally done with oil-based paints. Floorcloths originated in France in the early 1400s, created to copy table runners, painted wall hangings, and tapestries. When the British adapted this art form, they created cloths painted in geometric designs to be used on floors. By the mid-18th century, British floorcloths were imported to the American colonies, but following the Revolutionary war, they were produced and sold in this country. Interest in floorcloths has resurged again, and with good reason. They are attractive, durable, easy to clean, and impervious to mildew and insect damage. 

     From March through October, Ash Lawn-Highland is open for visitation daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. From November through February, the site opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. For additional information, call (804) 293-9539, visit their web site at: http://avenue.org/ashlawn, or email: ashlawnjm@aol.com
Ash Lawn-Highland is located at 1000 James Monroe Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902.

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