Barnum Museum’s recovery from storm damage under way

Published on May 22, 2011 by

Kathleen Maher, director of the Barnum Museum, keeps a strange collection of items in her office: a miniature cast iron stove that once belonged to famed dwarf General Tom Thumb, a portrait of P.T. Barnum and a bucket of bricks.

The bucket might the most valuable item in the office, according to Maher, because those bricks are part of what she considers the most important part of the Barnum Museum’s collection: the building itself.

“They go hand in hand,” she said. “(With landmarks) the building is usually an artifact and it is usually the most significant artifact.”

It’s been 11 months since the June 24 tornado that damaged the Barnum Museum’s most significant artifact. A renovation that is expected to take two years and cost $17 million is now getting under way.

On May 12, scaffolding went up along the museum’s South Wall, which is beginning to buckle outward on the top floor.

On May 16, the architects and engineers charged with putting the building back together met for a site visit at the museum.

The team is led by Elizabeth Moss, a senior associate at New York-based Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, and includes structural engineer Jim Norden of GNCB Consulting Engineers in Old Saybrook, and Tom Newbold of Norwalk’s Landmark Facilities Group, who will work on the building’s air handling system.

“We had our official team project kick-off for the initial Phase I pre-schematic/feasibility study for building envelope rehabilitation and MEP Upgrades yesterday on site,” stated Moss in an email.

The team, said Moss, has identified locations for investigative probes , so that they will be able to understand concealed parts of the building, which has many false walls. These probes, she said, will go on for the next month or so. When the investigations are completed, a written study of the findings will be prepared. This phase, Moss said, includes some historic research and what she called an “existing conditions survey,” which will document the building’s structure, construction materials and historical documents.

The idea of a renovation is not new to the Barnum Museum.

The building, said Maher, had been in need of some work before the tornado hit; the museum board and staff members began planning for a rehabilitation 13 years ago, but the tornado forced the board’s hand.

“When you get hit with a tornado, it takes all of the planning time there was,” she said.

The June 24 storm only lasted a few minutes, but it hit the Barnum Museum hard. Windows blew out. Plastic deck furniture from the rooftop patio of the adjacent People’s Bank building crashed into the brickwork. The high winds shifted the museum’s dome. Glass, leaves and other storm debris were sucked in by the museum’s air conditioners.

“We just heard a big bang,” said registrar Melissa Houston, who was in the building’s basement at the time of the tornado.

Inside the museum, the sudden rise in humidity caused a condition known as “hygroscopic shock” to wooden items with painted or gilded surfaces — the wood expanded, but the paint and gild did not.

“Everything with a painted surface is just flaking,” said Maher.

Varnish fell from paintings. Glue came undone. Maher, standing in the People’s Bank Community Room, gestured at a desk once used by P.T. Barnum. The desk had to be put in a clamp, she said, to prevent it from warping.

The staff’s focus now is to pack up the collection and get it moved into storage, either to a newly-created storeroom or to the People’s Bank community room, which adjoins the museum.

“It’s really the community room,” said Maher. “Now it’s housing the collection.”

There have been some interesting discoveries during the packing and cleaning process.

A dress form used to make clothing for Tom Thumb’s wife, Lavinia Warren, was discovered to have an entire dress, completed with corset, buried under folds of fabric. One of Thumb’s carriages appears to have once been painted light blue.

But the most extraordinary discovery may turn out to be the building and its rooms, which had been hidden behind false walls during a renovation in the 1980s. Last fall, collections manager Adrienne Saint-Pierre spent months cleaning, packing and cataloguing the 5,000-piece circus that stood under the museum’s dome. When the circus was packed away, she removed the canvas that covered some of the windows. The space, which was once a lecture hall used by Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, impressed her.

“It was unbelievable to reveal this space,” she said.

She and the staff are hoping that when the restoration is complete, all of the museum’s false walls will come down, and the building’s original fixtures, moldings and brickwork will be revealed.

According to Maher, about $320,000 of the renovation money has been raised so far, while $1.5 million in funds is pending. She expects to work on fundraising efforts with the Ringling Bros. Circus this year.

One piece of the collection is headed for another museum. The museum’s resident Egyptian mummy, Pa-Ib, will be traveling to Yale’s Peabody Museum in June, and will remain in New Haven until repairs and renovations are complete.

In the meantime, the museum’s doors are closed to the public. To keep the museum viable, Maher is planning to create an educational outreach program that will take the Barnum Museum’s mission outside its walls, or as she says, “take the show on the road.”

“For a closed museum,” said Maher, watching a worker haul scaffolding from a truck to the South Wall, “it’s awful busy.”