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Harvard University’s Dunster House Lighting Restoration Complete

Located on the banks of the Charles River, Harvard University’s Dunster House derives its name from Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College elected in 1640. The House was completed in 1930 after University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell proposed a House Plan to construct seven dormitories to separate upperclassmen from the freshmen, with the Dunster House being one of the first dormitories constructed.

Grand Light teamed with the Kieran Timberlake architecture firm, Atelier Ten Lighting Design, Turner Construction, and John A. Penny Co., INC, to restore twenty-eight original luminaries ranging from large chandeliers, wall sconces, pendant lights, and exterior lanterns.

Of the historic luminaires requiring restoration, twelve were manufactured by the renowned Edward F. Caldwell & Company of New York City, the premier designer and manufacturer of electric light fixtures and decorative metalwork from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. Caldwell lighting fixtures, ornamental bronzes, and ironworks include an impressive range of historical and modern styles that were produced in the company’s sixty-four year history. One consistent factor throughout all of Caldwell’s lighting fixtures and metalwork was unparalleled craftsmanship demonstrated through decorative details and beauteous finishes.

Today, many antique Caldwell lighting fixtures can be found throughout historically significant buildings including religious and cultural institutions, public buildings, hotels, theaters, universities, government facilities, and private residences; including the White House, the New York and Boston Public Libraries, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Hall, and Harvard University. The Caldwell visual and account book archives, thought to have been destroyed, were recovered in 1993 by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and includes a collection of 50,000 images of lighting fixtures and fine metal objects consisting of black & white photographs and original design drawings.

This was a significant project for the team of Grand Light artisans as this project contained twelve priceless Caldwell masterpieces, and the process each piece underwent was significant in conserving and maintaining  the beauty of the original workings of the Caldwell artisans and to preserve it for those to enjoy for the next 100 years or more. Featured herein are these masterpieces of the renowned Caldwell, and Grand Light’s processes outlining what each of these fixtures went through.

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(Photograph from The E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, New York, NY)

Shown above is a historic photograph of the first floor junior common chandelier owned by Harvard University – Dunster House from the Smithsonian Library E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection archives. There was a total of two of these fixtures, both of which required extensive work in revealing the original finish from the decayed lacquer, among other airborne contaminants.

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The above photograph illustrates the finish failure found on the Caldwell chandeliers. A dark patina had became the dominant finish on the body due to an extreme breakdown of lacquer. After several hours of testing different cleaning methods, Grand Light artisans found that a combination of walnut blasting, and hand burnishing was the only way that the underlying finish would be revealed, saved, and protected with a UV resistant lacquer. Upon determination of the luminaires conservation methods, both fixtures were completely disassembled down to the last finial.

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Shown are Grand Light artisans adding final touches to the reassembly of the chandelier. This fixture, which weighed approximately 300 lbs, did not have a safety cable which would keep the fixture together and on the ceiling should there be a catastrophic failure. Modifications to the fixture frame were made to accommodate this safety feature, which is a Grand Light standard practice.

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Shown above is the restored traditional Caldwell & Co. cast brass chandelier. Final assembly and restoration uncovered the original concealed Caldwell metalwork which showcased unparalleled craftsmanship, decorative details, and an opulent finish.

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(Photograph from The E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, New York, NY)

Shown above is a historic photograph of the second floor library chandelier owned by Harvard University – Dunster House from the Smithsonian Library E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection archives. There was one fixture of this type, and it required a significant amount of cleaning to reveal the original finish by Caldwell craftsmen.

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The above photograph illustrates the condition found on this Caldwell chandelier. Once again, these components were tested in order to develop an appropriate method of conservation. Each one of the components had to be hand cleaned with a proprietary cleaning solution, hand polished, and multiple coats of a protective wax were applied in order to restore the original finish.

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Shown is how the chandelier was received by Grand Light in comparison to after our artisans cleaned and conserved existing finish. The results are breath taking, and the pictures do not do the finish justice.

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Shown above is the restored traditional Caldwell & Co. cast brass chandelier.

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(Photograph from The E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, New York, NY)

Shown above is a historic photograph of the 1st floor private dining chandelier owned by Harvard University – Dunster House from the Smithsonian Library E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection archives. This fixture required a significant amount of cleaning to reveal the original finish. This fixture had incredible detail on the decorative components making this one of the more unique fixtures on this project.

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The condition of the finish on this fixture was similar to the condition of the previous fixtures, however this fixture had experienced blunt force at some point which had caused substantial damage. Grand Light artisans carefully reversed the damage to the components without compromising the underlying finish. This fixture was hand cleaned and hand burnished to reveal the intricate details which were evident on each component. In the areas where the original finish had deteriorated, Grand Light artisans hand burnished the areas removing tarnish and applied a patina blend to match with the original finish. Each component was waxed as the final step prior to being re-wired and re-assembled.

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You can see the repair that was made on the bottom ball. It is flawless and in the areas where the original finish was compromised during the repair, a patina blend was applied on and around the area of repair giving that area the appearance that there was nothing ever there.

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Shown above is the restored decorative Caldwell & Co. chandelier. All components were hand polished to it’s original finish.

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Shown above is the restored decorative Caldwell & Co. chandelier.

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(Photograph from The E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, New York, NY)

Shown above is a historic photograph of an exterior perimeter wall sconce from the Smithsonian Library E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection archives. The wall sconces from the Dunster House are a variation that includes custom bobeches and candle cups along with unique detailing.

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Shown above are the wall sconces in the condition the fixtures were received by Grand Light.The surface of each sconce had accumulated significant tarnish, obscuring the original Caldwell intended finish and detailing.

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A total of forty-eight pewter bobeches and candle cups from the historic wall sconces were meticulously hand cleaned and waxed by Grand Light artisans.

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Shown above is a historic Caldwell & Co. wall sconce after restoration had been completed.

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(Photograph from The E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, New York, NY)

Shown above is a historic photograph of the 1st floor dining chandelier owned by Harvard University – Dunster House from the Smithsonian Library E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection archives. The starburst luminaire from the Dunster House is a custom variation that accommodates seven sockets instead of the five socket model featured above. Each documented fixture featured in the Smithsonian collection bares a unique account number which acts as the only known bridge between the visual archives and client account book information. This ceiling mounted fixture was very intricate and very heavy. The condition of this fixture mechanically was superb, however the finish had completely broken down.

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Shown above is the starburst fixture as it was received by Grand Light. The lacquer top coat has completely broken down and was causing the underlying finish to corrode and darken. Grand Light had tested the components to see what the best method to use in removing lacquer, with the intent to preserve the underlying finish.

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The process for cleaning and stripping this fixture included the use of a specially formulated chemical blend to remove the lacquer without damaging the bronze surface. Once the chemical was applied, it was hand rubbed to remove the old layer, then immediately cleaned and hand polished. Once this tedious process had been complete for each component, multiple coats of protective top coat lacquer were applied.

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Shown above is the restored historic Caldwell & Co. starburst luminaire. Truly a vibrant piece when completed.

Grand Light specializes in the restoration of historical luminaires of every scale, material, finish, and design. From professional diagrams and plans for your project to rewiring fixtures to UL standards, our specialists have proven their reputation as exceptional lighting restorers. 

For more information regarding this project, you may review the project homepage at Harvard University – Dunster House.

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