Whately safe restoration nears completion

  • Elizabeth Mehlin, of Mehlin Conservation in Essex, describes the work she is doing on the 1891 fireproof safe at Whately Town Hall. Mehlin expects work to be completed Friday. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

  • The inside of a door of the 1891 fireproof safe that is being repaired on-site at Whately Town Hall. Work is expected to be completed Friday. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

  • The inside of a door of the 1891 fireproof safe that is being repaired on-site at Whately Town Hall. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

  • This 1891 fireproof safe is being repaired on-site at Whately Town Hall. Work is expected to be completed Friday. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

  • This 1891 fireproof safe is being repaired on-site at Whately Town Hall. Work is expected to be completed Friday. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

  • A sign taped to the front door of Whately Town Hall advises guests to use the building’s rear door from Nov. 18 to Nov. 22 to allow for restoration work on the historic town safe, which is immediately to the left after entering through this door.  Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

Staff Writer
Published: 11/19/2019 6:20:30 PM

WHATELY — Elizabeth Mehlin spent much of the early part of the week gently brushing a solvent onto a painted landscape at 194 Chestnut Plain Road, aiming to swell the oil resin enough so it could be chiseled off with a scalpel.

There is no frame to speak of. No hardware or steel cables for hanging, either.

Mehlin is restoring a 128-year-old fireproof safe on the first floor of Whately Town Hall. Residents at Annual Town Meeting on April 30 voted to use $10,300 of Community Preservation Act funding to have the safe restored to its former glory.

Mehlin, owner of Mehlin Conservation in Essex, was hired by Whately and started work on Nov. 5. She spent four days cleaning the 1-ton safe and came back on Monday to continue the job. She expects to finish Friday.

“These go through a lot, because … they were working safes. They just got beat up,” she said Monday, taking a break from her work. She illuminated her workspace with photography lights that added an undeniable physical warmth to the spot. “It was important to them. And it was a very fancy thing when they bought it.”

The safe’s doors depict a hand-painted landscape, though it does not appear to be locally inspired. There is also a floral paint job on the interior two doors.

The safe is immediately to the left once guests enter Town Hall’s front door. There is a piece of paper taped to the front door informing people to use the rear door until Friday.

Voters at the 1891 Annual Town Meeting authorized the Whately Selectboard to spend up to $275 for the safe. Donna Wiley, chair of the Whately Historical Commission, previously said that was 4 percent of Whately’s town expenditures in 1891. It is the equivalent of at least $210,000 of the 2020 budget.

The safe held money and files from 1891 until 2015, when town offices were moved to the building at 4 Sandy Lane while Town Hall was being refurbished.

Wiley previously said the safe is 66 inches high, 51 inches wide and 35 inches deep. It was made by MacNeale & Urban in Hamilton, Ohio, she said. The safe and its combination lock are still operable.

On Monday, Mehlin used swabs of acetone attached to thin wooden sticks to remove a varnish-like oil resin used as a coating to seal and protect the safe’s surface. She said acetone is “fingernail polish remover, essentially.” She said the second half of the week will entail adding a new coat of protection to the safe.

Mehlin, who has been in the field for about 25 years and started her company 12 years ago, said she specializes in oil paintings. This is the second safe she has restored, having been hired by Essex to repair a MacNeale & Urban wall safe.

“It’s kind of a new thing for me,” she said. “I worked on one before this, and they’re really not that different from paintings. It’s just, the materials you use are different.

“It’s fun and challenging,” she added. “I’m glad somebody cares about (the safes), because a lot of these got thrown away.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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