by Louise Hoffman Broach
Everything old is new again, or can be made that way through the talented hands of Finger Lakes artisans. The region’s colorful cottage industry brings life back to everything from antique books with broken spines to smashed stained-glass lampshades. In their home workshops or small businesses, these restoration experts make their living or supplement their income by putting composition dolls back together or by repairing damaged oriental rugs.
Many of them inherited family interests. Glass restorer John Lord in Waterloo and book binder Doug Westerberg of Sodus Point took over operations their fathers started. Others, like doll collector Helene Marlowe of Henrietta and carpet restorer June Vegh of Penfield developed their enterprises from love of their hobbies.
Chris and Paula Sophoclides have been re-caning and otherwise restoring chairs for more than three decades. They say they continue to do it because it is a dying art into which they can still breathe some life. At their Recollections ReCaning business in Canandaigua, they receive pieces for repair from as far away as Florida and Washington, D.C.
Lord lives in a sprawling house at the edge of the Seneca-Cayuga Canal. Several of his metal sculptures line the driveway. He says glass restoration is just one part of his passion for the art of restoration. He also fixes early firearms and collects and repairs anything he finds interesting including tower clocks and china.
He has one criteria: it has to be old, or at least not modern or mass-produced. Otherwise, there’s no challenge, he says, and the work is “boring.”
Lord’s father, Samuel Frederick Lord, was a machinist at the Seneca Army Depot. He was a tinkerer, making repairs to whatever he found needed fixing, his son says. It led to his friendship with Richard Wickham, a glass restorer.
Wickham didn’t drive, so Samuel Frederick would take him to jobs and John would tag along. When his father passed away, John continued to work with Wickham on restorations large and small until Wickham died. At that point, John discovered he had become somewhat of an expert.
One of his most renowned projects was complete in 2013 – the cleaning and restoration of the stained-glass windows in the chapel at the Spa Apartments in Clifton Springs. He painstakingly washed and repaired each window, originally made by Boston-based Spence, Moakler and Bell, and a Louis Comfort Tiffany mosaic of The Last Supper, the chapel’s best-known feature.
One day during the project, John happened to walk out of the building with an administrator from the adjacent Clifton Springs Hospital. As they chatted about what they had done that day, “I told him that I got to wash Jesus’s face,” Lord recalls.
“I think I have the best job and I would not do anything else,” he adds.
Doug Westerberg owns the Yankee Peddler Bookshop in Sodus Point, where he not only sells rare, antique and collectible books, he also puts them back together. His parents started the business in 1970 and quickly learned that people often read their favorite books so many times that they begin to fall apart, so they established a repair workshop.
First, Westerberg assesses what’s wrong with a book to determine what needs to be done to restore it. Just about anything structural can be fixed, he says, including the book’s spine, loose binding and damaged backing. He repairs each book with love and care because he knows how important and special they are to their owners. It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to repair a book, he says, depending on what’s wrong with it and the materials he uses.
One of Westerberg’s more unusual projects concerned of a book from the late 1700s, signed by its Irish-born author Lawrence Stern. It was sent to Australia when the restorations were completed.
He also sells books, photographs, art and collectibles at shows throughout the region. Each item he puts on display there or in the store has to pass scrutiny and may be subject to repair. “We’re pretty picky how we present our stock,” he says.
Helene Marlowe, the doll collector, also sets up at shows. Some of the antique dolls she displays need minor work before they are ready to be viewed. She started doing doll restoration in the 1980s when she reassembled her husband’s grandmother’s childhood doll, a German bisque doll made in 1905.
“It had lain in her attic for well over 60 years,” Marlowe says. “Because the elastic stringing had let loose, the doll was in pieces. Grandma learned I had been taking a class in making reproduction porcelain dolls, so she asked if I knew how to put her doll back together.”
Marlowe restrung the body, spruced up its human hair wig and replaced one of the knee joints, which had been chewed by a mouse. “I made one from a large wooden bead that I carved to shape and then painted to match the rest of the body,” she explains. She gave the doll back as a Christmas present, much to the delight of her husband’s grandmother.
“I think I was hooked after that,” she says. “I truly enjoy bringing a doll or a bear back to life, especially when it is a treasured family heirloom.”
Marlowe said she only does minor repairs, such as stringing and setting eyes, and also repairing cracks in composition dolls (a doll made partially or wholly out of a composite material composed of sawdust, glue, and other materials such as cornstarch, resin and wood flour). She said she has to be careful there because museum restorers warn against doing any repairs that can’t be reversed. There could be detrimental reactions to the substance used for the repair, and also new processes invented in the future.
“Each doll can present a unique challenge to overcome,” Marlowe notes.
Vegh feels the same way about the rugs she restores in the dining room of her Penfield home. She started her work about 40 years ago when she became fascinated with two small rugs that she and her husband found in an antique store. They were cheap, but they needed repair, and she bought both of them. “I fixed them by copying what was there already,” she says, describing how she matched the patterns with new fibers she wove into the rugs. “They came out pretty good, and my friends began throwing rugs my way.”
She likes to work primarily on small rugs made of wool. They are easier to handle compared to rugs made of cotton that have a tighter weave, she says. Vegh prefers to do repairs on the outside edges of rugs, although she can fix moth holes and places where beetles have made tunnels. She can also address wear problems elsewhere in the rug.
Vegh has developed some tricks and special techniques, including burning yarns to get the right shades, and re-coloring faded areas using permanent marker. She does not travel to do the work; people must drop the rugs off to her.
She is self-taught, but says it is really not that hard to do the restoration. She also restores quilts and has done many renovations to her historic house herself, with help from her husband.
“It’s common sense and it’s really just like cooking,” she says. “A lot of people think they can’t do it, but they can.”
The Sophoclides do all types of seat repair including traditional hand-woven cane, rush, splint and binder. Paula says there are fewer and fewer companies offering the variety of services that Recollections does.
They also have a thriving antique business that finds them on the road as they travel to shows from their base in Canandaigua.
Restorers of many types are getting harder to find, she says, which is why she maintains a network of people with the ability to give old things new lives.
East Rochester, New York
Restores and repairs upholstery
Farmington, New York
Restores glass and early firearms
Waterloo, New York
Henrietta, New York
Restore silver, brass and copper
Fairport, New York
Restores estate/Victorian jewelry
Victor, New York
Chris and Paula Sophoclides
Restores and repairs cane chairs
(and other weaves)
Canandaigua, New York
Kendall, New York
Restores Oriental carpets
Penfield, New York
Yankee Peddler Book Shop
Restores and repairs books
Sodus Point, New York