Steps taken in restoring floor

WILTON – The floor of the rotunda in the public library is an elaborate mosaic comprising thousands of half-inch squares of marble. Since 1908, patrons have walked across it, and in places the floor is a little worn.

Using a grant of $75,000 from the state Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, which was matched by the Wilton Public-Gregg Free Library, the floor is undergoing an extensive restoration.

“It is like fitting a big puzzle back together,” conservator Louise Freedman said of the work. She and her two associates, Kimberley Simpson and Melissa Carr, began the work Oct. 20 and hope to be finished by the second week in December. “We’ve secured the tiles, the backing is in much better condition, and we’ve re-created some missing tiles.”

The center of the floor, a large circle of yellow, Italian sienna marble, “is perfect,” Freedman said, as is the outside circle of the mosaic, made of gray Tennessee marble. The rest is made of marble from Vermont and Italy, and some red New York slate.

These pieces are being removed, cleaned, turned over if necessary, repaired and reset.

“Some of the little tiles (called tesserae) were set into mortar that was too hard, was already beginning to set, and grout was holding it together,” Freedman said. “In some cases, the underside of the tile is in better condition.”

The restoration work was begun by mapping the entire 319 square feet of floor, and dividing it into pie-shaped wedges, each numbered to keep track of the tiles.

The tiles were removed by first covering a section with a polyester cloth to temporarily hold them together while the tiles were cut free with a diamond tool, and then raised with a shim gently nudged underneath a loosened section.

“They had to be cut apart in a way they wouldn’t shatter,” she said.

After the tiles were removed, the floor underneath was cleaned, a new adhesive put down, and the tiles replaced.

When all of the tiles have been replaced, the floor will be cleaned and sealed with a pure wax from England. “We are using a very safe enzyme that is removing the dirt and grease,” she said.

Freedman of Marblehead, Mass., is an independent conservator working from L.H. Freedman Studios in Boston for the past 25 years. Her two associates are also independent artisans who have teamed up for this project.

Freedman said she has previously worked for 10 months at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, “taking apart the fireplaces in the period rooms, cataloging each nail and screw” for reconstruction after a new addition is completed.

She has also worked at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and on the mile markers dedicated to Gen. George Patton in Hamilton, Mass., in 1954. “It is where he lived,” she said. “They were totally falling apart. I am a stone conservator,” she added. “And I do a lot of private work.”

Simpson has also done a lot of work at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Of the work she is completing at the library, Freedman said, “The new work can be reversed if needed, and you won’t have to go through this again to repair it. It will need yearly maintenance to be sure nothing has come loose,” since working on one section can affect an adjoining section.

She said the library will probably cover the travel areas with clear vinyl and restrict the amount of traffic across it.

Residents are invited to visit the library and view the work through the rotunda windows.

The library is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $1.2 million, of which $330,000 has been raised, for restoration of other sections and renovations to include an elevator to the children’s rooms on the lower level, new lighting and heating in the Historical Rooms on the upper floor.

The library was a gift of David A. Gregg, and is still considered one of the most beautiful libraries in the state. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.