Saving Mr. Staples

For a 208-year-old guy, Horace Staples looks pretty good.

Some say he’s never looked better.

For years his portrait — painted in 1934 by Samuel Brown, as a WPA project — hung in a deserted corner of the school he founded.

When the new building — a gazillion square feet larger than the one he donated in 1884 — opened a few years ago, Horace Staples was placed in a prominent spot. He smiled enigmatically — a philanthropic version of the Mona Lisa — right outside the main office.

Earlier this year, principal John Dodig — who loves the school as much as Horace did — noticed the founder was flaking. In fact, his paint had begun deteriorating in his “youth.” Previous conservation treatments failed.

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Dodig notified Carole Erger Fass, co-chair of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. She and co-chair Kathie Bennewitz called Peggy Van Witt, an art conservator in Kansas City.

Peggy, a former Westporter, had recently conserved the damaged portrait of another, equally famous school namesake: Edward T. Bedford. She was happy to help. Off Horace Staples went, to the Midwest.

Peggy unpacked him, and was not pleased.

“I just removed Mr. Staples from the box, and examined him closely,” she wrote to the WSPAC. “He is severely delaminating.”

Doesn’t it suck to delaminate?

“In a previous restoration the tacking edges were trimmed,” she explained. “He was glued to a panel which was then nailed to a stretcher bar. This makes it more complicated.”

Peggy had 2 choices: “inject him with an adhesive from the front, or remove him from the panel and put him on the vacuum table.” She ran a battery of tests, then treated him.

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Soon — all spiffed up — Mr. Staples was back in Westport. Once again, he hangs proudly outside the main office.

And — just like Horace Staples 128 years ago — Peggy Van Witt is a very generous soul.

She waived her $1,247 conservation treatment fee.

All of Westport — and the no longer delaminating or flaking Horace Staples — thank her.