As soon as you hear the fateful — snap!– when a guest leans back in a spindly antique chair, you know the room has a new occupant.
Until recently, I lived in the Broken Chair Room, as do many owners. It transported me back to 1964, the first summer after my mother bought Madewood, when family and friends – lured by the thought of a luxurious plantation weekend that inevitably turned into a work-release program – all slept in one room, adjacent to the ground-floor bathroom.
One of mother’s friends, who reveled in the decadence and disorder that surrounded her, had the most remarkable snore, like a grizzly who wasn’t pleased with the sandwich he’d looted. The sound would wake us up throughout the night, and we’d giggle uncontrollably until she’d wake up and ask us to be quiet – we were disturbing her sleep.
At sunrise, Mother would wake us all with vitamins and glasses of Tang powdered orange juice, mixed on the shelf above the bathroom sink, as we had no kitchen at the time. The tub was where we washed dishes, so there was the requisite hose bath every evening on the brick patio. One day, the hose migrated onto the rear gallery, then through the open door into the ballroom.
That’s when we got the idea to hook up the pressure washer and attack the peeling paint in the ballroom. Days later, we marveled at the purity of the clean white plaster walls and quaffed an evening glass of Tang.
It was all great fun, but now it returned like a traumatic flashback. Was this to be my future, not just my past?
When I woke up in the Broken Chair Room this New Year’s Day, I decided enough was enough. Several days later, I rallied Warren Freeman, whose family has lived on the grounds of Madewood for six generations, and David Kruse, my construction guy and Sometime-Nanny-to-Miss-Clio-the-Dog when we are out of town.
By late afternoon, broken chairs, and anything else we didn’t know what to do with, had been banished to Rosedale, a 1916 building I’d moved a mile down highway 308 to Madewood in 1983. The former Broken Chair Room, now empty, with light streaming in through the four tall windows, loomed as a beacon toward future sanity and comfort. Now all I had to do was renovate it.
So, like Shakespeare’s Bear, I decided to Exit, Running . . . leaving Mr. Kruse to tackle the job while Millie and I were out of town.
But not before handing him a yard of thick chocolate velvet to deliver to Ruppert Kohlmaier, Jr., New Orleans’ premier cabinetmaker and patron saint of Broken Chair Rooms.
While we handle most of our minor repairs, when it comes to a piece like Millie’s grandmother’s inlaid antique armchair, with elaborate needlepoint that takes the whole creation right up to the boundaries of contemporary good taste, we turn to Ruppert and his Germanic attention to detail.
“A real period piece, that one,” Kohlmaier sighed when I delivered the wounded chair to him shortly before Katrina. “Messy break at the top. And the upholstery’s so dull.”
A housekeeper had shrieked when she watched the back of the armchair disintegrate as she moved it to clean. A guest had obviously wreaked destruction on the chair, then cobbled the shattered top together and departed without saying a word.
“Pity,” Kohlmaier continued, “but I know a lady who does museum-quality work, and she’ll be able to clean it.”
With the slash of a knife, off came the needlepoint back and seat. Nine months later, for about the cost of a new washing machine, the panels were back in my hands.
“They’ve shrunk,” Kohlmaier shrugged. “Pity. But buy me some velvet to make a liner, and I can fix it.”
Never make the mistake of thinking that getting an antique repaired is going to be easy.
“You’re a lucky man,” said Kohlmaier when I picked up the phone several weeks later. It seems the bag I dropped off contained only the velvet. Apparently I’d driven off with the needlepoint panels on top of my car, and a neighbor several blocks from Kohlmaier had found them and asked if they were his.
Years went by. To welcome 2011, Kohlmaier called.
“When are you going to get me that velvet?”
The chair looks fabulous in the newly decorated, once-upon-a-time Broken Chair Room, where I now live and work.
When I saw the newly-rehabilitated room for the first time last week, I had the same feeling I’d had after brother Don and I dismantled the rolling scaffolding, carried out the paint cans and hung make-do curtains in the music room, the first room we restored at Madewood that summer long ago.
We invited a friend over to see our handiwork. No one said a word as we swung open the massive door and showed him in. The hushed, reverent tone, he recalled, reminded him of entering a cathedral.