Saving a Historic Treasure

Conservation of the “Old Plymouth Chair”

Thanks to the generosity of the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation, in 2019, BHS was able to commission critical conservation work to stabilize Henry Ward Beecher’s chair. Funds supported the preparation of this valuable historic artifact for future exhibition and ensured its preservation for future generations. 

From the pulpit at Plymouth Church to the Brooklyn Historical Society, this upholstered chair has survived more than 150 years of wear and tear. Used in the church for only about twenty years, the original pulpit furniture went into church storage in 1869, not to be rediscovered until 1898. Reporting on the surviving examples of “old Plymouth chairs,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the chair’s upholstery had deteriorated, but that Plymouth Church congregant Stephen M. Griswold had searched for five weeks to find “plush of the same material and color” to reupholster the chair. Kept by the church as a Beecher relic, the chair came to BHS in 1983 along with an extensive archival collection that sheds light on the complex Beecher story.

Engraving from “Old Pulpit Chairs”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 16, 1898

Brooklyn Public Library

Previous efforts to conserve Beecher’s chair stalled because of the need for conservators with expertise in both wood and upholstery. That dual skill set was found in 2019 with Fine Wood Conservation, a Brooklyn-based conservation lab. Broken and missing elements of the chair’s wood mahogany veneer on ash frame have now been consolidated and repaired. Although much of the chair’s original jute stuffing had worn out and needed to be replaced, its red mohair velvet upholstery and springs were salvaged and maintain some of the characteristics of Beecher’s original chair.

Chair following wood treatment, before upholstery work, 2019 

Photo courtesy Fine Wood Conservation Inc.

Damaged Crest Rail before treatment, 2109

Photo courtesy Fine Wood Conservation Inc. 

Crest Rail after treatment, 2019 

Photo courtesy Fine Wood Conservation Inc.