Portland’s MPF Conservation team’s work shines in the Mason Monterey collection at the Oregon Caves
Armed with her sixth box of 500-count Q-Tips and a small glass bowl of de-ionized water, conservator Kate Powell dabs at a colorful, and heretofore greasy, Mason Monterey chair propped up on the work table in the upholstery room of MPF Conservation.
“This is a good example of how dirty they are,” she says of one of the two dozen pieces of Monterey furniture she and her husband, Mitchell Powell, are mending, cleaning and conserving for the for the chateau at the Oregon Caves National Monument in Southern Oregon.
The husband-and-wife team who make up Portland-based MPF Conservation specialize in conservation — the preservation of an object’s structure, history and value — and selective “restoration” of furniture, wooden objects, textiles and interior architectural elements for both private and museum clientele.
Kate holds up a blackened Q-Tip. “That’s grease,” she says. “You know the feeling if you run your finger through the turkey pan? That is exactly what it feels like when I’m cleaning.”
(Click images to read extensive notes under images.)
The grease is the handiwork of thousands of tourists who have traipsed through the chateau since it opened in 1934, trailing fingers grimy with hamburgers, suntan lotion and ice cream across the once gorgeous showpieces. The Oregon Caves Chateau, designed in a rustic style by local architect Gust Lium, is built into the steep mountainside that houses the caves. The lobby is the fourth floor of the lodge; a stream runs through the third floor dining room.
Since it opened, the purposely primitive interiors were complemented with colorful Monterey furnishings — the Western-inspired line that flourished from 1929-43. In its heyday, it filled moderate ranch homes as well as those of Hollywood legends, including Roy Rogers, Clark Gable and Walt Disney. The furniture, often bedecked in leather with wrought-iron hinges, hand-painted donkeys, flowers and sombrero-wearing figures, was a popular choice for hotels and lodges throughout the southwestern United States.
Despite its California/Southwest beginnings, it looked right at home in the Southern Oregon lodge.
“I like being in Oregon,” Kate Powell says, looking around the window-lined workroom of MPF Conservation and out to the forested hillside. “I still feel like a California girl, but this feels more like home.”
A graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, she studied under renowned architects such as Pierre Koenig and Panos Koulermos.
Powell opened her own firm and also taught at the University of California at Los Angeles and Long Beach State. She loved teaching, she says, but in the end she just got tired of it.
“Having worked in corporate America for years, that was…” Kate Powell says, waving her hand in the air as if to finish the thought by signing, “trivial.”
The chateau is considered one of the prime examples of rustic architecture in the National Park Service. Its collection of Monterey furnishings is believed to be one of the largest public collections in the world.
A remodel in the 1970s replaced some pieces in the main living areas, but the rest of the Monterey collection, including some prize examples in the large fourth-floor entrance lobby, were untouched.
With the 100th anniversary of the Oregon Caves’ designation as a National Monument and the chateau’s 75th anniversary in 2009, the Friends of the Oregon Caves and Chateau determined to restore and conserve the furniture. With a $7,500 Oregon Cultural Trust grant, the bid went out to find the conservation experts who could do the needed work on the furniture, which California collector Bob Smith had been quoted describing as “a motion-picture version of what cowboys might have had in the way of furniture — if they had furniture.”
The job description: Conserve and painstakingly restore as needed two dozen pieces from the chateau’s collection, which National Parks Service curator Mary Merryman numbers at around 200.
So, some 25 years ago, she left her home to the south, saying “sayonara” to traffic and congestion. She closed her firm in Los Angeles, left her teaching posts and moved to Southern Oregon. There, she embraced a lifelong love of art, photography and books by opening a bookstore in Jacksonville. It didn’t make it, but she says she knew the risks going in.
Mitchell Powell grew up in Santa Paula, Calif., which calls itself the citrus capital of the world. He spent his boyhood helping out in his mother’s restaurant and fooling around rather unsupervised in his father’s workshop. No one stopped him from using the drill press or the crosscut saw. Laughing at the memory of toying with danger, Mitchell Powell says his take-away was a confidence he could do most anything.
“If I didn’t know, I could learn,” he says.
Mitchell, too, left California, heading north, where he found Southern Oregon the perfect antidote to his home state’s hectic pace. It was the ’70s, he said, and the “back-to-the-land” movement drew him to a more bucolic setting.
He moved to Medford to train as an upholsterer in his brother-in-law’s shop. At the time, he says, no one was concerned with conservation. Pieces were torn apart for recovering; the old fabric and the stuffing tossed out. No one cared about the historic evidence embedded in the hair and fibers used to fill upholstered furniture, he says.
Powell ended up buying the shop from his brother-in-law and employed a European upholsterer under whom he apprenticed while signing his checks, he says. He then met a German man who taught him a lot about fibers and the structure of pieces and yet another who was trained in old-style American upholstery.
“I got a fairly decent grounding in upholstery reparation,” he says. “Much of what I learned has been by hand, bench-training and through books. … I’ve learned to know what I don’t know and understand how to go after what I need to know.”
He developed Mitchell Powell Furnishings, collecting vintage furniture, a knowledge of case goods, woodworking and refurbishing. He also established an art gallery.
Working essentially in secret, due to the value of the pieces they work on, Kate Powell explains that what makes that grease she’s dabbing off such a daunting task is its ability to imbed into the furniture, melding with the paint. In some cases, using anything but de-ionized water to lift it out will lift out the paint, too.
“We didn’t bid on this**,” she says of the time-consuming cleaning method as she sets the soiled swab down, shrugging her shoulder slightly, resigned to the fact that this project required a meticulous conservation method beyond what they anticipated.
“It is our gift to the National Park,” Mitchell Powell says.
It was in Medford that Kate’s and Mitchell’s paths crossed.
She’s the one who suggested he focus on one thing or another, adding that it seemed his true love was working with historical objects.
“Choose,” she said.
“I closed everything down,” he says.
The two embarked on a yearlong RV trip around the states, hunting down local coffeehouses, organic cafes and bookstores.
“When we came back, I started working on historic objects only,” Mitchell Powell says. “I’m kind of a jack of many trades. There’s just so much to know, you can never know it all. It’s very exciting.”
While he focused on his work, Kate focused on him.
“You,” she recalls looking at her husband and thinking, “I could market.”
Armed with confidence, she announced she was going to cold-call the Hearst Castle to inquire about its conservation needs.
She landed an appointment faster than one can take the castle tour, which led to them working in conjunction with tapestry conservator Stan Derelian on William Randolph Hearst’s Flemish sofa.
From there she pushed* Mitchell to become a professional associate with the American Institute of Conservation, created their website and worked to market their business, which they moved to Portland in 2007.
“Kate makes me look good,” Mitchell Powell says.
“You are good,” she shoots back. “Mitchell and I met and it was a good fit for my skills and great for our marriage.”
Her unyielding faith in his skill, she says, is what she brought to Mitchell Powell’s growing passion and talent as a furniture historian, restorer, conservationist.
Her push to market her husband’s knowledge and talent led to establishing MPF Conservation. A subset of sorts to Mitchell Powell Furnishings, it was this arm of their business that brought the collection of greasy, flood-damaged, broken and well-used Mason Monterey Furniture to their unmarked workshop in Northwest Portland.
While trying to detect paint colors — work that could be a forensic science — the Powells contacted the folks at Portland’s Gamblin Artists Colors. Armed with all Gamblin’s pigments and a spectrometer, Robert Gamblin was able to determine the colors through spectral light and Kate Powell then matched them.
“That was a very big gift to the NPS,” Kate Powell says of Gamblin’s pro-bono work.
The majority of the Monterey pieces will go right back on the floor of the chateau to be used by visitors, with only seven items going to the National Historic Monument’s museum collection. The Powells have spent 10 months on research, paint matching, cleaning, resurrection of upholstered pieces and replication of broken, unusable chair legs — to just touch on the intensity of their scrupulous work. You can feel for them when they know the furniture will once again be plopped on by hamburger-eating tourists. But that anticipated fate is exactly what they have to consider when conserving furniture.
It was also the Gamblin folks who helped the Powells come up with something they could use as a protective barrier on the painted furniture. Pieces that are headed to the museum got a wax finish, but those that will go back to work in the chateau needed something more.
Enter Gamblin’s president, Peter Cole — on a bicycle.
Turns out Cole, an avid cyclist, had a mahogany fender made to ward off the Oregon rain. To protect the fender, he coated it in a Gamblin product called Galkyd, an oil-based varnish. When visiting the Powells’ studio, he invited them to step outside and examine the 3-year-old fender. Impressed with its preserved status, Kate Powell called (Mary) Merryman, who is consulted every time the Powells unearth anything from original paint color to fiber sources. She told Merryman that all they had was an anecdotal story about the power of the Galkyd finish, but it was good enough for them — high praise given the levels to which the Powells take their research.
Merryman agreed, and a coat of Galkyd went on anything returning to the floor, Kate Powell says, turning the bottle of liquid over in her hands, thankful to have found the protector of their meticulous work.
“The kids with the greasy hands,” Kate Powell says, wincing, “they are going to come and sit and I’m going to cry,” she says, laughter bouncing off the lovingly conserved A-frame Mason Monterey chairs in the room.