Resurrecting a Roman Soldier

Guild member Chris Yerke of Restoration Workshop, shares the details of restoring an historic fireplace in a San Francisco Queen Anne house.

Restored fireplace
The beautifully restored fireplace

618 Baker Fireplace.beforeIn 2010 I was engaged in the exterior restoration of a Queen Anne house by the prolific designer/builder Cranston and Keenan. Cranston and Keenan homes are staples of San Francisco’s Western Addition. This house turned out to be a particular jewel. It was clearly one of their more expensive models, replete with many fine examples of interior decorative arts products of the day. Moreover, during its 117 year existence it had survived practically free of painting and remodeling. It had suffered some deterioration with time and neglect, but was largely intact as a time capsule of this particular architect’s style.

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The missing torso tile

Due to the zeal of our passionate client, it was not long before I was tasked with a number of interior restoration projects, concurrent with the exterior restoration. Among these was the restoration of the 5 fireplaces. Like the other fireplaces there were loose and/or missing tiles, the firebox was badly deteriorated, and the wood surround could use a touch up from a restorer. The owner had been lamenting the long lost art tile containing the upper torso of the reclining Roman soldier.

Catalogue page from American Encaustic Tile Co.

As with many fields of endeavor, the secret to being a good general contractor lies not in knowing everything, but rather in knowing how to ask the right questions. I went to my favorite source for all things tile, Riley Doty of Doty Tile. Accustomed to hunting up missing period hardware, I asked Riley what he figured my chances would be of coming up with a surviving example of that tile. He laid my odds at something just slightly better than finding the Holy Grail. He explained that these tiles were made in a variety of different glazes. The odds of finding one that had survived demolition or been stuck in some hidden corner of an old stock room were quite remote, and if I did find one, the chances of it having the matching glaze would be astronomical. He then offered that he knew an artisan who could reproduce the missing tile. He gave me the contact information for L’Esperance Tile Works in Rock City Falls, NY.

In order to reproduce the tile, we would need some idea of what the original looked like. Riley came to the rescue by contacting the Tile Heritage Foundation to see if this set of tiles was to be found in their collection of old tile catalogues. His theory that the tiles were made by the American Encaustic Tile Company turned out to be correct, and the Tile Heritage foundation quickly located the catalogue page with photos of the three roman soldier tile sets, exactly as seen on the fireplace.

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Linda sculpting the Roman soldier in wax


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Tile figure sculpted in wax

I removed the remaining two tiles of the set, packed them very well, and sent them off to Linda Ellet of L’Esperance Tile works. Linda would be tasked with sculpting the reproduction tile. She explained that among the challenges would be shrinkage in drying and firing. Because clay shrinks, you have to make a calculated guess and sculpt the tile appropriately oversized in its wet state. Then you hope everything will line up exactly with the originals after shrinkage. It is a real head-scratcher, involving years of experience offset by the fact that the shrinkage of clay is subject to many factors not entirely controllable by the artisan. The original sculptor had the advantage sculpting all three tiles at the same time, vastly aiding his chances that all the many visual elements would align from one tile to the next.

In the end, Linda sculpted the entire panel of three tiles to aid her in the process. She did such a superb job that the head tile aligns beautifully with original center tile. The reproduction is installed in its place at the head of the two originals.

Riley Doty reset loose tiles, realigned shifted tiles, and fixed a multitude of grouting issues. United Chimney, Inc. rebuilt the firebox and smoke shelf, expanding depth of the firebox in the process and adding a damper. The restored product is the result of a pleasing and fruitful collaboration between highly skilled artisans.

618 Baker Fireplace.after
The restored fireplace