Conservation of Cather's Attic Bedroom Wallpaper
As part of the collections and buildings transfer between History Nebraska and the Willa Cather Foundation, the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center has provided expert assistance for wallpaper conservation in the author’s preserved attic bedroom at the Willa Cather Childhood Home.
One of twenty-one National Historic Landmarks in Nebraska, the Willa Cather Childhood Home was designated in 1971 after its purchase and restoration by the Willa Cather Foundation in 1960. It can be visited by guided tour from the National Willa Cather Center. Built around 1879, the house was rented by the Cather family from 1884-1904. Young Willa, the eldest of seven who was given her own bedroom, lived there with her family from the age of ten until she left for college in 1890 at the age of sixteen. She returned for regular visits until she moved to Pittsburgh in 1896 and less frequently to Red Cloud after that.
For many of our guests, seeing Willa Cather’s attic bedroom, still adorned in its original paper with pink roses, is the highlight of their visit to Red Cloud. Unfortunately, decades of light damage and environmental instability have taken a toll on the wallpaper. Cather got the rose-strewn wallpaper in trade for her work at Dr. Cook's drugstore. She would later write the bedroom description, and the papering experience, into The Song of the Lark (1915) for Thea Kronborg’s bedroom:
"The ceiling was so low that a grown person could reach it with the palm of the hand, and it sloped down on either side. There was only one window, but it was a double one and went to the floor. In October, while the days were still warm, Thea and Tillie papered the room, walls and ceiling in the same paper, small red and brown roses on a yellowish ground."
In early May, we were thrilled to launch a major conservation treatment of Cather's beloved wallpaper. Paper conservator Hilary LeFevere and conservation technician Megan Griffiths from the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center at History Nebraska were on-site for four days to begin the process and evaluate the original wallpaper (c. 130 years old). They cleaned the paper on the walls and stabilized as many loose areas as possible. This tedious work was fascinating to watch as accumulated dust and oils were removed inch by inch, brightening the circa 1888 paper. While cleaning, the team was able to locate a manufacturer.
In the fall, when it is cooler and less humid, the conservators will return to continue preserving what is in place and begin adhering loose sections of paper. The recent discovery of the wallpaper's manufacturer will make it possible to further explore options to recreate the paper in an effort to make viewing the wallpaper selected by Cather more accessible to all visitors for generations to come. "Projects like this have any number of potential solutions,” says National Willa Cather Center archivist Tracy Tucker. “The results of this testing will be crucial in helping to plan for the best conservation of the paper for the next 130 years.”
As with the places associated with famous authors, Willa Cather's bedroom has become a literary shrine for visitors and her original wallpaper is an essential part of that experience. Cather created her space well ahead of the concept of "A Room of One's Own" as Virginia Woolf would recommend for women writers in her 1929 essay. It was also the kind of attic bedroom, with its sloping matchboard ceiling, that Cather requested when later staying and writing from the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey and the study of her cottage at Grand Manan. Remarkably preserved here in rural Red Cloud is a simple attic bedroom which, for a few pivotal years in a small and busy household of nine, provided the eldest child the solitary space needed for her brilliant young mind to imagine the whole world.
If you would like to support our ongoing conservation efforts, please contact executive director Ashley Olson at email@example.com or (402) 746-2653. You may also donate here.
For more information:
- "Restoring Willa Cather's Attic Bedroom Wallpaper," History Nebraska Blog, May 9, 2019
- "Flowers in the Attic," History Nebraska Blog, June 19, 2019
- "History Nebraska Transfers Willa Cather State Historic Site to the Willa Cather Foundation," History Nebraska Blog, January 23, 2019
- "Cather Wallpaper Preservation Project," Pure Nebraska video segment with Jon Vanderford, May 9, 2019\