Historic Johnson Hall

JOHNSTOWN –Re-creating the past two centuries ago isn’t always easy–especially with gaps in images and documentation.

But historic Johnson Hall is doing its best, for modern folks, to bring to life the home of Sir William Johnson, the colonial founder of Johnstown.

Wade Wells, historical director of Johnson Hall, said recent restorations are aimed at giving the public “a more accurate look at what the house was like in the 18th century, how Sir William Johnson presented himself.”

“It gives them a better sense of how a gentleman of means live here on the frontier.”

Johnson Hall is a Georgian-style house with an open central space on both floors and four adjoining rooms on each floor. On a hot day, Wells demonstrated one way the Johnsons ventilated their home by opening the large front and back doors to allow a breeze to blow through.

The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff The hallway back door of historic Johnson Hall in Johnstown is seen from the open front door. Keeping the doors open was an 18th-century method of bringing a cooling breeze through the house. Though it may look like linoleum at first glance, the floor has a canvas carpet painted with a pattern typical of that era. The flooring was installed this year. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

The halls have been the objects of recent restoration and more is expected as funds are raised.

The white walls were replastered where needed and repainted in the past year and a half. The ceilings got a new coat but without roller marks because that painting technology didn’t exist in Johnson’s era. “There were fine cracks in the walls that had to be repaired,” Wells said.

As for painting the wainscoting and crown molding, Johnson Hall did a 1998 analysis of the existing paint so as to closely approximate the original. While the average person might not know the difference, Wells said the analysis was required for authenticity.

The hallway wainscoting looks like grained mahogany, it is really white pine painted with yellow, red and brown colors with swirling to look like mahogany, what Wells called faux mahogany.

Wells said Johnson, whose land grant from the British crown comprised 1,000 square miles, “could well afford to import a shipload of mahogany.” But very much like moderns, people in Johnson’s days tried to get the best possible deal for the least cost, he said.

While the hallway banister of historic Johnson Hall in Johnstown is mahogany, the wainscoting was white pine originally painted to look like mahogany. It has gotten a repainting to retain its original look. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

The artist who painted the wainscoting took breaks and moved periodically to different panels so that her arm wouldn’t get tired and change the look of any given panel.

The stairway is mahogany, “which would have been a lovely display of Johnson’s wealth,” he added.

Johnson Hall was the 1763 estate of Johnson and Molly Brant and their family. Johnson (1715 – 1774) was the largest landowner and most influential individual in the colonial Mohawk Valley.

His success in dealing with the Six Nations had a lasting impact on their relationship with the English and largely influenced England’s victory in the Anglo-French struggle for control of colonial North America.

The main house and flanking stonehouses were originally surrounded by a 700-acre farm. Johnson also traded profitably with the Indians.

Wade Wells, historical site coordinator for Johnson Hall, the Johnstown home of the city's founder, Sir William Johnson, displays the pillar-and-arch pattern wallpaper common in the 18th century. Although no one knows what Johnson's hallway wallpaper looked like, the halls will be papered with this pattern as an approximation. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

The crown molding, like the wainscoting, was an amalgam of colors, in that case, of a sea green/gray with beige, based on the paint analysis.

Johnson wallpapered his entire house, but the design is unknown. Wells said. The best educated guess was a pillar-and-arch pattern draw in those days from ancient Greek and Roman styles.

The wallpaper will be block-printed with the help of a Friends of Johnson Hall’s matching grant from the nonprofit Parks and Trails New York in Albany. But the Friends must raise $10,000 to $12,000 to get the yellow ochre paper hung.

Block printing was a new technology in those days that superseded free-hand wallpaper painting, Wells said.

Because Johnson Hall has settled over the past 254 years, the paper has to be hung carefully to match the pattern.

The hallway floors were covered with a diamond pattern made of painted canvas in May, which could be mistaken for modern flooring unless the observer looks closely. The pattern is consistent with patterns of that time, Wells said.

Unfortunately, no sketches and few records about the house by Johnson have been found, and Daniel Claus, a son-in-law, made no mention of the appearance of the floor and walls in his probate inventory after the Johnsons passed, he said.

Much of the original furnishing were auctioned off.