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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 11, 2010

Icing on the cake
Plaster ornament crowning glory for restored Gothic mansion

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — The historic Schoolcraft House, a Gothic Revival mansion on Western Avenue, is nearly restored, as the walls and ornamental ceilings get re-plastered by one of the only local master plasterers.

The house, built in 1835 as a summer home for John Schoolcraft, a prominent Albany banker and politician, has been undergoing restoration since 1995. It was purchased by the town of Guilderland in 1994, for $140,000, after Town Historian Alice Begley spearheaded a movement to save it when the owner planned to sell it to make way for a parking lot. The mansion is now on the state and national registers of historic places.

The restoration project was broken into five phases — cleaning the house and tearing out modern walls and additions, fixing the foundation and putting on a new roof, repairing the exterior front of the building, repairing the interior of the building, and site work outside.

Guilderland Supervisor Kenneth Runion said there is a good chance that the full restoration will be complete within the year. A total of roughly $222,000 has been spent on the restoration effort since 2000, Runion said; $87,000 of the funding has come from state grants, corporate donations, and a not-for-profit organization called Friends of the Schoolcraft Cultural Center.

Michael Ryan, a plasterer from Glenville, is currently working on the fourth phase, which is repairing the inside of the building. For the past six months, he has been plastering the walls and the ornamental cathedral ceiling in the house. Relying on one small picture and a few pieces of the crumbling original molding, he has re-created the 19th-Century design.

“There are some very unique features in this house. I have never done ornamental work on a cathedral ceiling before. I didn’t fully comprehend how hard it would be when I bid on it,” said Ryan. Some projects in the house have taken much longer than he anticipated; the large, cone-shaped skylight, which he estimated would take him about a week to finish, took over a month.

Ryan, 61, has an art degree from Skidmore College, and originally worked as a potter. After 25 years in pottery, he decided to learn to work with plaster, so he could expand his business.

“I realized there was a market for fixing ornamental ceilings, so I pretty much taught myself. I read a lot of books. For years, I was looking for that old Italian artist who could teach me, but then I realized I could teach people more than I could learn,” Ryan said.

There is a market for plastering because it is a lost art, he said, and plasterers are hard to find. For the past 14 years, Ryan said he has had constant work, restoring old churches and houses.

There are no new ornamental plaster ceilings, Ryan said, because architects do not design them anymore. New houses don’t use plaster because it is labor intensive and expensive, he said.

“To plaster requires hand-eye coordination that is rapidly disappearing in our culture. Anyone can hang Sheetrock and do a bad taping and painting job,” according to Ryan. He said plaster is superior to Sheetrock because it is sturdier and absorbs sound.

“I like this work because it is problem-solving. I have to use all of my creative skills. Every job presents a unique challenge,” said Ryan. In the Schoolcraft house, that challenge has been figuring out why and how the original architects made their design choices, and deciding how to effectively re-create the designs.

“I’ve had to completely re-invent ways to do things in this process,” Ryan said. Because the walls he has worked on have different lengths and angles, he has had to make a variety of molds for the same room. He estimated it would take him another two weeks to finish the plaster work.

When the entire renovation is complete, the house will be used as a cultural center, according to Supervisor Runion. It will hold recitals, educational programs, and various shows, he said, including art shows.

“We’ve been working on this for a very long time,” said Begley, the historian who has spurred the project on. “We have held to our goal of restoring the house as closely as possible to the original. It’s going to be beautiful. I’m excited.”

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