Hillside Theatre Curtain Restoration
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation | Jun 23, 2020
Get a glimpse of the carefully completed restoration work for the exquisite Hillside Theatre Curtain, still being used in a functional theatre space in Spring Green, Wisconsin near Taliesin. The Hillside Curtain is one of the largest gifts Frank Lloyd Wright ever received and it is also one of the largest objects in the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s collection.
On his birthday in 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright was greeted by the largest gift he had ever received, the Hillside Theatre curtain. It was not a surprise, as he had created the design himself and probably knew it was in the works, but seeing the finished product was an astounding gift nonetheless. Today, 64 years later, the curtain is still an impressive work of art and one of the largest objects in the Foundation’s collection. The curtain’s design, rendered in felt, yarn, and gold lamé on a canvas ground makes it challenging to care for, especially since it is still used in a functional theatre space. Here’s a look into what we did this summer to preserve it for years to come.
“The new lamé restores the impressive shimmering look of the original material, making the contrast between it and the matte canvas and felt more striking, and heightens the sense of motion when the curtain is opened and closed.”
The conservation work was completed by Harold Mailand, of Textile Conservations Services in Indianapolis, working with Chelsea and Sarah Noggle. Harold has worked with the Foundation on the curtain in various capacities since 1988. The most comprehensive restoration project was in 2006, which involved taking the curtain out of the theatre and shipping it to his workshop, detaching the vertical panels that make up the curtain, fully cleaning it using both wet and dry methods, and individually caring for every component of the curtain as needed. After the 2006 conservation, the curtain was part of the exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward, where it was exhibited at both the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2009, and the Guggenheim Bilbao.
The 2020 restoration project built upon the work accomplished in the previous conservation efforts, requiring a less invasive approach. The most prominent issue to be addressed was the gold lamé that runs along the bottom of most of the curtain, which had become seriously worn and was beginning to fall apart in some areas. Lamé is a fragile fabric and the bottom of the curtain is exposed to the most movement and disruption, making it very susceptible to damage. Portions of the lamé had become detached and started to drag along the floor and all the material had lost its signature luster.
“Many of the pieces of yarn, which hang and sway with the curtain, had been broken or detached and were replaced. Some of the felt pieces had been detached at one or two corners as well.”
The lamé was treated by stabilizing the existing fabric and placing a layer of nylon netting on top of it to secure it in place. Then a layer of new lamé, specially painted to match the appearance of the original material, was placed on top of the original fabric with an additional, thicker edge at the bottom of the curtain to provide some extra strength. This strategy ensures that the original material is preserved and all of the new work is reversible. The new lamé restores the impressive shimmering look of the original material, making the contrast between it and the matte canvas and felt more striking, and heightens the sense of motion when the curtain is opened and closed.
Many of the pieces of yarn, which hang and sway with the curtain, had been broken or detached and were replaced. Some of the felt pieces had been detached at one or two corners as well. This provided a good opportunity to examine how some of the colors have faded over the years, given that the majority of the felt has never been replaced. A section of green felt shows that the color has changed slightly from a deep green to a softer tone. The brown felt appears to have not changed at all and provided a glimpse at the original source for the material, the Continental Felt Company’s Vel-Fel felt.
“After the curtain was unveiled, Wright made some changes to it, removing yarn and staining some of the canvas with Nescafé instant coffee…”
Historic photos of the curtain are limited and do not offer as much information as we would like, which raises questions about how far we should go with our work. After the curtain was unveiled, Wright made some changes to it, removing yarn and staining some of the canvas with Nescafé instant coffee, but we do not have a good sense of specifically what those changes were. When the curtain was made, the patterns were written onto the canvas in pencil, with notes for the different colors of yarn and felt, some of which are still visible today. Ultimately, relying on the information we had, we decided not to make any interpretive changes to the curtain, but someday we might have enough data to make a more informed decision.
In addition to the other fixes, the entire surface, front and back, was vacuumed, with samples taken of the grime that was removed in the process. The process took just under a week, which has been compressed into a timelapse video.
You can also watch this Facebook Live video presentation from June 9, 2020 for another look at the curtain following its conservation.
As happy as we are about the completion of this project, regrettably the curtain will not be on view until the Hillside Theatre Save America’s Treasures grant project is completed. The project includes the installation of new exterior drains, the construction of new backstage areas in the previously unfinished basement, improvements to the theatre’s lighting and sound equipment, and improvements that will make the building more accessible for everyone.
We look forward to sharing the curtain and everything we will do throughout the theatre with you once the project is complete!