BGSU students add color to historic Hayes home

It was called the Red Parlor, but historically, it has existed in black and white.

Thanks to interior design students at BGSU, however, the room in President Rutherford B. Hayes’ Fremont home is showing its true, 19th-century colors.

Archival photo of the Red Parlor />
  An archival photo of the Red Parlor at the Hayes home.       

In less than three weeks, the 30 students in Debra Zappitelli’s History of Interiors course took written accounts of what both the Red Parlor and the master bedroom looked like at the time, plus archival photos, to create color renderings of the rooms’ bygone appearance.

 The Hayes Presidential Center is using the renderings to promote a project to restore seven rooms to their condition when Hayes left the White House in 1881 and the home became his and his wife Lucy’s permanent residence.

As part of the Save America’s Treasures program, the center has received $400,000 in federal funds, which must be matched. A capital campaign is being planned to raise money for the restoration project, which will focuson rooms most used by the 19th president and his wife, said Nancy Kleinhenz, the center’s communications manager.

  Color photo of the Red Parlor
 The BGSU students’ rendering of the Red Parlor’s 19th-century appearance.

“We have many black and white photographs of the home’s interior taken during President Hayes’ residence, as well as written descriptions of the home’s color schemes,” Kleinhenz explained. The BGSU students “provided the means of combining those black and white photos with the descriptions,” she added, noting that the renderings have already been displayed at two events.

“All aspects of the actual restoration will be done according to a plan created and administered by Gail Caskey Winkler, an expert on Victorian interior design,” she pointed out. “However, this in no way diminishes the importance or usefulness of the students’ work.”

“When Debra brought those renderings here, I had one word for her and that was ‘Wow!’” recalled Kleinhenz. The results were particularly impressive, she said, considering the quick turnaround required to have them ready for a reception for donors to the center.

Picturing how the rooms really looked was a problem with only the old photos as visual evidence, she said. The amateur photos were dark, but the students’ efforts brightened the rooms, according to Gil Gonzalez, the center’s head of photographic resources. While adding color and dimension, the renderings also presented the possibilities of the rooms’ beauty once they’re restored, he said.

The center connected with BGSU through Dr. Alberto Gonzalez, twin brother of Gil and vice provost for academic services at the University.

After communicating with both Gonzalez brothers, Zappitelli said she saw the project as a chance to integrate service learning into the course and a “wonderful opportunity” to apply the classroom to real life.

She only had a couple of days to determine how to incorporate the extra work, but designers have to do that all the time, she reasoned. The project became the students’ final exam.

Although the tight time frame “seemed overwhelming” at first, the students put in extended hours and worked together to finish the job, Zappitelli said. “When they’re interested, they’ll really knock themselves out,” she added.

“They had to do some sleuthing,” Kleinhenz said, noting that newspaper accounts of the home included one by pioneering woman journalist Nellie Bly. The students also traveled to Fremont and took their own photos, notes and measurements in the Hayes home.

“It was real problem solving,” said Zappitelli, coordinator of the Interior Design Program within the School of Family and Consumer Sciences. When the students were discouraged by limited time and the project’s scope, she reminded them “this is exactly what you’ll be doing in the profession eventually.”

With a mandate to “take in the history and aura of the Hayes Center,” they also needed to be mindful of the significance of being in a president’s home, she said.

One of the most important things that young interior designers must do is conceptualize design intent, Zappitelli emphasized, and the students sought, successfully, to communicate the design that would have been in style 125 years ago. “They rose to the occasion,” she said.

January 9, 2006