Curtains Without Borders revives history through niche restoration

  • Art conservator M.J. Davis mends tears in the 1912 “Minuteman Curtain” that was restored in Orange Town Hall. Contributed photo/Maureen Riendeau

  • Orange Historical Society Director Maureen Riendeau and art conservator M.J. Davis clean and prep the old stage curtain at the Orange Town Hall for restoration on Nov. 7. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Art conservators M.J. Davis and Chris Hadsel, right, of Curtains Without Borders, clean and prep the old stage curtain at the Orange Town Hall for restoration on Nov. 7. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Workers and volunteers clean and prep the old stage curtain at the Orange Town Hall for restoration on Nov. 7. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • The old stage curtain at the Orange Town Hall was restored in three days of work by Curtains Without Borders. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/7/2018 3:08:32 PM

Just over a century ago, the residents of Orange walked into their Town Hall and were greeted by a magnificent sight.

Before them, at the back of the room, was a bridge across a river, leading to a tranquil park surrounded by trees of green, teal and purple hues. In the center of that park was the statue of a minuteman, a monument to America’s earliest freedom fighters.

No, it wasn’t a real bridge, or park, or statue, but a 28-foot by 18-foot custom curtain, donated to the town in 1912 that depicts the minuteman statue in Concord.

The curtain will hang in Orange once again, with Curtains Without Borders Director Chris Hadsel and fellow conservator M.J. Davis restoring the curtain last month following successful fundraising efforts by the Orange Town Hall Restoration Committee.

“It’s a unique piece of community art,” Hadsel said of Orange’s curtain.

A niche profession

Curtains Without Borders is a traveling conservation company formed in Vermont that restores historic curtains that once hung prominently in government buildings across the country. Such curtains were a trend in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and often depicted natural scenery or historic sites.

Especially in New England, the curtains were popular, with 483 such historical curtains listed on Curtains Without Borders’ directory of New England states, though there could be more that have yet to be discovered.

Hadsel and her team travel throughout the country based on requests from individual towns’ historical commissions. Sometimes the projects are funded through grants, though in Orange’s case, the Town Hall Restoration Committee took the lead, requesting Curtains Without Borders’ help and raising $7,500 from donors as far away as Germany for the curtain’s restoration.

Orange’s curtain is mid-sized, Hadsel said, noting that a curtain the company restored in Northampton in 2016 was twice the size, making it one of the company’s most challenging restoration projects to date. The bigger the curtain, the more difficult and time-consuming. Orange’s curtain took three days of careful work to restore.

According to Hadsel, mid-sized and large curtains are rolled up and wrapped around a long tube like a roll of paper towels, and the tube can be rotated to reach central parts of the curtain that need to be painted.

Restoring each curtain comes with its own set of challenges, and requires knowledge about history, painting and textiles, something Hadsel quickly found out when Curtains Without Borders was founded in 1996 as a project of the Vermont Museum & Gallery Alliance.

“We’re really the only company in the country that does this,” said Hadsel, explaining that other conservation companies don’t work on-site with volunteers.

Hadsel and Davis, who had backgrounds as conservators, had consulted with friends — various conservators, artists and historians — enough to have an understanding of what restoring the curtains would take, and began their venture.

In addition to Orange, Hadsel said she’s also heard from officials in Leyden, Greenfield and Whately about having their stage curtains potentially restored, making it possible her company could be back in Franklin County soon.

Catering to each curtain

While each curtain was part of the same turn-of-the-century trend, each also had its own dimensions, colors and material. Orange’s curtain, for example, was commissioned by the Minute Tapioca Company, which had a large factory in town. The Minute Tapioca Company contracted Twin City Scenic Company in Minneapolis, Minn., which created the curtain for the Town Hall.

Hadsel and Davis vacuumed the old curtain, which had become blackened in spots due to the coal stoves used for many years in the Town Hall, and used a pet-hair sponge to rub off other dirt and dust. Then, the curtain was repainted, with Davis painstakingly matching the colors of her palette to those on the curtain. Especially in areas the curtain was folded — the “seams,” in other words — the original paint was gone.

Part of the challenge, Hadsel said, is that the curtain painters often used stencils, which are long gone in many cases and cannot be replicated perfectly. Davis has to very carefully use freehand to paint what was once done by stencil, including a cartouche and lettering bearing a title inscription on the curtain.

“With every curtain we learn something,” Hadsel said. “Each comes with its own challenges.”

Hadsel explained that the curtain also requires reinforced edges and patches in certain areas, “like iron-on patches” made of a material like muslin.

Orange’s curtain will hang near where it once did, in what is now the Ruth B. Smith Auditorium on the upper floor of Orange’s Town Hall building. In the early 1900s, the auditorium was considered the Town Hall itself, and it’s still used for local events, government meetings and Annual Town Meetings.

The curtain will be hung at the back of the stage as a backdrop, and will be a nice change to the nothingness that is currently there, Hadsel said.

Honoring history

The curtain will also display a particular historical trend people will find interesting, Hadsel said. Back in the early 1900s, such “granges, town halls and want-to-be opera houses” did not actually have real drapery. Instead, drapes were painted onto the stage curtains as a border, just like the dark green curtains painted on the curtain in Orange. Inside the drapes, painted on the curtains, is commonly another border, one that looks like a frame one would find on a vintage painting.

“You have the drapery, the frame, the scenery,” Hadsel said. “The picture is offset by the frame.”

In the 1890s through 1940s, roughly, Hadsel said such curtains provided background scenery for plays and performances, regardless of whether or not they matched the content of the production.

“People didn’t make scenery for specific productions as they do now,” Hadsel said. “Instead, it’s part of the furnishings of the stage. ... This was normal in almost every town.”

Only 25 curtains have been put into “deep” storage as they are too fragile to fully restore. Otherwise, the company’s efforts have been a tremendous success that bring joy to those in the communities with curtains.

Hadsel said she’s always proud of her team’s work when a curtain is restored, especially in a place like Orange, which has a Town Hall auditorium that looks “more like a small opera house.”

“It is very satisfactory when we finish,” Hadsel said. “It will look so much better, it will be up and people will be happy. You see the minuteman, you see the bridge. It’s beautiful.”

It’s taken some work and generosity from donors to get the curtain restored. It’s been in storage for decades — though no one is exactly sure since when — folded up, decaying and its painted colors fading. While the auditorium’s lights, floors and paint have been updated, the curtain was neglected until recently.

“The restoration of the curtain will be a stunning visual reminder of the original splendor of the hall, and will provide a central focus on the stage,” said Maureen Riendeau, director of the Orange Historical Society. “With the assistance of local volunteers and local fundraising, experts (helped) to restore the curtain to its former grandeur, and it will be replaced as a backdrop to the stage.”

Riendeau said she hopes the auditorium’s stage lighting can also be replaced, and that a professional will rig the curtain. Together, those new — and, in a sense, old — features will make the Ruth B. Smith Auditorium once again a perfect spot for plays, concerts and other performances.

As for the curtain, Riendeau said it will be hung by a professional rigger, but first the Town Hall must receive a finished report from a structural engineer assessing the space. Riendeau said that early spring is likely when the curtain will be displayed for all to see.

People wishing to donate money to the Town Hall’s restoration should mail checks made out to the Orange Town Hall Restoration Committee, care of the treasurer, to the Orange Town Hall, 6 Prospect St., Orange, MA 01364.

David McLellan joined the Greenfield Recorder this year, covering the towns of Orange, New Salem and Wendell. Contact him at or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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