Makeover at the Mansion: A Private Library in a Historic 42-Room House Presents Special Restoration Challenges

Article excerpt

An increasing number of historic sites--along with their collections and archives--are being rediscovered and preserved today. While many of the preservation and collection management challenges found in these homes and museums are no different from those libraries face every day, a close study of the situation faced by one such institution reveals unique restoration needs.

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Like many other historic buildings across the country, Salisbury House and Gardens in Des Moines, Iowa, is embarking on a major renovation project to preserve its period library and art treasures. Constructed during the 1920s, the 42-room historic mansion sits on a 10-acre wooded estate complete with formal English gardens. Originally the home of Arm and Cosmetics creator Carl Weeks and his family, Salisbury House was modeled after King's House in Salisbury, England--a vision that began with a trip to Europe in 1904. Carl and his wife, Edith, returned to Salisbury many times to acquire authentic furnishings and fixtures for their own Tudor-style mansion on the prairie. Weeks even salvaged the 16th-century roof timbers from the old White Hart Inn at Salisbury, under which Shakespeare once reputedly performed.

By its completion in 1928, Salisbury House cost $3 million to build and furnish--exceeding the amount spent on construction of Yankee Stadium just five years earlier. The house served as the Weeks family residence for nearly three decades; it was then sold to the Iowa State Education Association, which located its offices there for 45 years.

Since acquiring the mansion and its collections intact in 1998, Salisbury House Foundation has worked to restore and operate the site as a historic mansion museum, providing public access to its many treasures. In addition to the architecture, the mansion is distinguished by an extensive collection of art and artifacts, including paintings by such notable artists as Joseph Stella and Anthony van Dyck. But one of the most prized collections in the house is Weeks's private library, which contains more than 3,000 rare books and manuscripts.

Protecting a world-class collection

Weeks's passion for books began at an early age. As a young pharmacy student, he often used his lunch allowance to purchase books instead. Over the course of his lifetime, Weeks accumulated a wide variety of volumes, from first editions by D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, and Ernest Hemingway to incunabula, antiquities, and letters from royal and historic figures. The collection is also notable for bibles and other religious books, including a 15th-century illuminated book of hours.

The library at Salisbury House is one of the most complete originally installed rooms in the mansion. As a collection, the library is important because it not only illustrates the personality and interests of the owner, but also stands as a record of book-collecting practices in early 20th-century America. Individually, the rare books and manuscripts provide unique research opportunities that are generally found only in world-class institutions.

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Current preservation issues facing the library collection are now at the forefront of the foundation's efforts to restore the house, with the goal of achieving National Historic Landmark status. …