People were socializing. Someone may have been giving a speech, but Elise Grenier couldn’t tell you what was said.
She was too distracted by the hand-painted wallpaper, its romanticized scenes by an artist who possibly had never traveled to the United States. The slow deterioration of the masterpiece in the Old Louisiana Governor’s Mansion dining room was all Grenier noticed.
“I couldn’t even concentrate, because of the damage,” she said. “All I could do was look at the damage and think, ‘I wish somebody would let me restore it.'”
Her wish came true in July, when the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Museum Division hired Grenier to restore not only the dining room wallpaper, but damaged bits and pieces in the rotunda and East Room.
Grenier is a Louisiana-born art conservator whose business, Grenier Conservation, has restored quite a few key Louisiana public artworks, including LSU’s Allen Hall frescoes, ceiling art in the Louisiana State Capitol’s Memorial Hall and Conrad Albrizio’s frescoes at the Louisiana Exhibition Museum in Shreveport.
She’s also done maintenance work on a Banksy mural in New Orleans. Now, her attention is solely focused on the wallpaper, which, she says, is a work of fine art in itself.
The wallpaper is only one of three sets in the United States. The other two can be found in the White House in Washington, D.C., and at Brown University.
And it only makes sense that the Old Governor’s Mansion would share this decor with the White House, being that Gov. Huey Long partly expressed his dream of becoming president by designing the mansion as a smaller version of the White House.
With one exception.
“Huey Long had the wallpaper put into the dining room when the mansion was built in 1930,” Grenier said. “The White House didn’t put their wallpaper until 30 years later, in 1961.”
Which prompts some speculation. Did Jackie Kennedy visit the Old Mansion when her husband brought his presidential campaign to the Crowley Rice Festival in 1959? She did, after all, spearhead the White House’s restoration in 1961.
Then again, maybe it’s just coincidence. The fact is the wallpaper was placed in the White House later, and it’s not in the dining room.
“At the White House, it’s in one of the reception rooms,” Grenier said. “The interesting thing about the White House was that their set was recovered from a house in Maryland, a very old historic house that was going to be demolished. It was called the Stoner House — a nice, historic house built by a wealthy merchant in Thurmont, Maryland. The other set is in the Commons Room at Brown University.”
Grenier is just finishing up the project on this day. The wallpaper appears as it did when it was installed — one continuous mural telling the story of an American landscape that technically doesn’t exist.
“It’s called ‘Scenic America,’ inspired by French artists’ engravings of American sites from the 1820s,” Grenier said. “French artist Jean-Julien Deltil designed the wallpaper, but I’m not sure if he had ever come to America. This might be his impression of how he thought America would be.”
Nevertheless, Jean Zuber and Co. produced the “Scenic America” wallpaper in 1834 in Alsace, France, where it has been operating since 1797. And the amazing part? The wallpaper is still available for purchase.
Grenier researched the company while spending her days surrounded by Deltil’s idealized 1834 American world where diverse races and ethnicities harmonize in romantic scenes of New York City and the bay from the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, the fortification of West Point on the Hudson River, a view of Boston and its harbor, the natural bridge of Virginia and Niagara Falls.
Once visitors get their bearings on this continuous carousel, the landscape somehow becomes recognizable. And there are plenty of visitors who have viewed it while Grenier worked.
The Secretary of State’s office added the Old Louisiana Governor’s Mansion, at 502 North Blvd., to its Museum Division in November 2021 and has since opened it to visitors free of charge.
“I am incredibly excited that the Old Governor’s Mansion is now under the care of the Department of State,” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said. “This beautiful piece of our state’s social and political history joins the eight other museums currently under my care as Secretary of State.”
The building previously had been operated by Preserve Louisiana, formerly the Foundation for Historical Louisiana.
The mansion also served as home to the Louisiana Art & Science Museum from 1964 to 1978.
“Lots of visitors remember when the planetarium was here,” said Sondra Mott, event coordinator for the Secretary of State and the mansion’s manager. “We still have a switch for it on the breaker box.”
And before the planetarium opened the universe for a 14-year flow of museum visitors and school years from behind the mansion, the building was home to nine governors, beginning with Huey Long.
Louisiana’s governors previously lived in an old house known as the Knox Mansion, which stood on the same spot. Long enlisted the aid of prison inmates to tear it down, which led to the Louisiana legislature’s unsuccessful attempt to impeach the governor in 1930.
“I consider it my role as its caretaker to be an incredible privilege and responsibility,” Ardoin said. “The mansion is our very own White House and is one of the most iconic remnants and reminders of Huey Long’s legacy as governor of Louisiana.”
Cost of construction was almost $150,000 with an added $22,000 for the finest damask and velvet drapes, crystal chandeliers and other high-end pieces.
That included the wallpaper, which Grenier said, involved a woodblock printing process.
“According to documentation from the Old Governor’s Mansion files, 1,674 woodblocks were needed to produce it,” Grenier said. “The woodblock method requires a separate wood carving for each color present. Each wood block was lowered through a pulley system on the color pad, then lifted and lowered onto the paper to receive the design.”
The paper is printed with tempera paint, and the colors are not water resistant.
“The sky, that blends from a light to a dark blue would have been applied by hand before the scenes were printed,” Grenier said.
Grenier used Caran d’Ache color pencils in the restoration, but she emphasizes that they weren’t used for touch-ups.
“I used them to keep the wallpaper intact,” she said. “This is basically tempera paint on paper, and that’s about the most delicate thing that there is to deal with in restoration. As long as nothing happens to it, it’s going to be fine, but by its very nature, tempera paint on paper is a lot more delicate than say, faux finishes, which are directly on the plaster.”
And since tempera paint wallpaper isn’t water resistant, water-based solutions can’t be used in its restoration when it suffers dings and scratches.
Grenier looks around the room now. The paper has been reattached in the places where it had separated from the wall, cracking has been smoothed over and dings have disappeared.
And though the paper now looks as it appeared when it was first installed, the wallpaper’s story isn’t perfect.
“The paper was also not correctly aligned on some of the seams when it was first applied in 1930,” Grenier said. “It was designed in a continuous flow, and it does great in a circular room. It’s in a circular room in the White House, but here, it’s interrupted by the window.”
But it works, and now Grenier takes a moment to take in Jean-Julien Deltil’s world.
“It really is a beautiful piece of fine art,” she said. “After years of looking at it, I’m so happy that I finally had a chance to restore it.”