Restoration of the Ballroom
By Andrea F. Schoenfeld
Published in Cosmos Bulletin, March 2012
It took 6,000 linear feet of gold, $2 million, eight and a half months of work, and six years of planning to restore the Warne Ballroom to its former glory as one of Washington’s finest Gilded Age salons.
The inspiration for the ballroom was the mid-18th century France of Louis XV. The architects of the Townsend Mansion, built at the turn of the 20th century, were John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. The interior designer, responsible both for the architectural detail and the furnishings, was the renowned Parisian firm, Jules Allard & Fils, with offices in London and New York. Allard collected architectural salvage from chateaux and 18th century townhouses. Allard’s Paris workrooms produced woodwork, cabinetry and chairs, marquetry, paneling, bronze, and other metalwork for an international clientele, including the Rothschilds in London and the Vanderbilts in New York and Newport. Mrs. Richard Townsend, who sometimes summered in Newport, may have been familiar with the Allard interiors at The Breakers and Marble House. At the time Allard designed the Townsend interiors, the firm also installed the interiors of The Elms and Rosecliff.
No Townsend family documentation on the construction of the house survives. In 2003 the Cosmos Club Historic Preservation Foundation learned through Paul Miller (’07), curator of the Preservation Society of Newport County, that Allard had designed the Townsend interiors. This discovery enhanced the Club’s appreciation of the ballroom and the importance of restoring each element to its original appearance in order to achieve the dramatic effect of the design as a whole.
The Foundation, which funded the restoration of the historic plaster, woodwork, painting, gilding, original lighting and floor, decided to restore the ballroom to its appearance in the period 1901-15. These dates were chosen because the only surviving historic photographs of the Townsend Mansion interior are those published in the Architectural Record in 1901 and Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photographs circa 1915. They document alterations in the decoration of some rooms. The 1901 photograph of the ballroom shows globe-shaped light fixtures suspended from each of the three sections of the ceiling. By 1915 they had been replaced by large chandeliers in the north and south coves and a mural in the central section. The wall sconces also were installed after 1901.
Planning for the restoration began in earnest in 2006 when the Foundation commissioned Mr. Miller to develop a restoration plan, and he provided informal guidance throughout the project. John Milner Associates, Inc., of Alexandria, Virginia was selected to prepare a detailed rehabilitation/restoration master plan including the updating of heating, air-conditioning, lighting and audio-visual systems. The Foundation received permission from the Internal Revenue Service to spend tax-deductible donations on interior renovations in 2009.