Puyallup: News

What’s underneath 14 layers of paint at the Meeker Mansion? A professional art restorer finds out

For future visitors of Meeker Mansion, a suggestion: When inside one of its rooms, look up.

There’s a good chance that the designs painted on the ceiling are the work of Sally Hopkins, a professional art restorer who’s been working on Meeker Mansion for more than 40 years.

“My job is to uncover the original decoration to see if we can preserve some of it,” Hopkins said last week as she worked in the mansion.

Hopkins visits Meeker Mansion every few years, traveling from her home in Portland. She doesn’t get to come often, but after visiting Puyallup several months ago for the funeral of longtime Puyallup Hisorical Society President Bob Minnich, she told historian Andy Anderson that she wanted to continue her work on the ceiling of the mansion’s billiard room.

And all of last week, that’s what Hopkins did.

The ceiling of the billiard room is a mosaic of labeled old paint, faded designs and repaired plaster. Each section tells a story, and is part of Hopkins’ process.

“If you think of this like archeology … it’s like the same thing here,” she said. “You have to sand down to the original layer without completely destroying it.”

Built in 1890 as the home to hops grower Ezra Meeker and his family, Meeker Mansion was also used as a hospital and a nursing home in later years. In 1970, the Puyallup Historical Society was formed to save it. In her decades of work, Hopkins has uncovered and restored designs in the mansion’s downstairs hallway, formal and family parlors, dining room, carriage entrance, the “yellow” room and one of the bedrooms. Hopkins started her work in the mansion’s billiard room several years ago, where she got to work sanding through 14 layers of paint from the mansion’s former uses.

It’s a delicate process. Hopkins doesn’t use chemicals, which might be faster but could potentially damage the original artwork.

“It takes some practice so you don’t take the layer you want off,” Hopkins said.

After sanding, Hopkins carefully tapes a transparent piece of paper to the ceiling and draws what she sees.

Hopkins learned the art of restoration from her father, Ken, who started the work of restoring paintings at Meeker Mansion. One day, he took Sally with him to work.

“It was going to be a summer job ... and it was more than one summer,” she said.

Her father taught her to not assume to know what she was drawing and to just follow the lines of the art.

“We just (drew) exactly what we saw and if we didn’t know what it was, we left it out,” Hopkins said.

She remembered restoring art of a clear sky on a ceiling downstairs in the mansion with her father. On lunch breaks, they would go to the billiard room and wonder what was lying underneath.

“Our running joke for years was that it’s going to be a cloudy sky,” Hopkins said. “You wouldn’t believe my surprise when (it was).”

But it was other things, too. On a piece of paper taped to wall where Hopkins worked, she wrote, “The pattern on the 1890 ceiling is a trellis full of hop plant leaves and cones set against a cloudy sky.”

“(Ezra Meeker) made his money with hops, so it was a big deal for him,” said Hopkins. She uses a drawing of hops growing in different stages to help her identify what she sees before her.

Other images she’s uncovered? Pink roses, apricots, a Japanese Torii gate, and a bee skep.

The Puyallup Historical Society identified the painter as Fred Atwood, who Sally said still surprises her with his paintings. About 80 feet of grapevines restored downstairs was one of those surprises.

“He had a quirky sense of humor,” she said. “Every time I think I’ve got him figured out, he always throws in a zinger.”

After she’s finished with her drawings, the Historical Society will decide whether it wants the recovered paintings to remain untouched, or to be repainted by Hopkins. Only about 20 percent of the original ceiling can be saved.

In either case, it’ll be a long time before completion, and Hopkins isn’t sure how much longer she can do the work.

“I’m hoping to come back here again … (but) I don’t know if I have the stamina left to finish,” she said.

She hopes that the original paintings and labels will remain, because many Meeker Mansion visitors enjoy looking at them and puzzling them out.

The Historical Society says it’ll take another $30,000 to $35,000 to restore the artwork on the rest of the mansion. Anderson said the society would love to have Hopkins return — as long as it can continue to pay her.

“We are the only house that I’m aware of in this part of the world that has hand-painted ceilings,” Anderson said. “It’s not something you find everywhere. We’ve taken on the responsibility of restoring the house that’s what had to be done.”

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s been really neat to do,” Hopkins said.

Allison Needles: 253-597-8507, @herald_allison