Worker Bees and Spider Webs: Preparing Saarinen House

Walking through Saarinen House during the historic house tour season (May 1st – October 31st) visitors expect to see a few things; perfection in architecture, intricacies in woven textiles, beautiful leaded glass, and ingeniously designed furnishings. What visitors miss during the off-season is the buzzing of many “worker bees” laboring over the house’s care. As the Associate Registrar for the Center for Collections and Research, however, I am commissioned with task of caring for the house and preparing it for the public tour season.

Exterior plaque, Saarinen House.  Considered part of the Cranbrook Art Museum, Saarinen House operates as a historic house open to tours from May to October.   The house is interpreted to the 1930s, when the Saarinen family first built and inhabited the home.  Copyright Cranbrook Art Museum/Balthazar Korab.

Exterior plaque, Saarinen House. The house is open from tours between May and October and is interpreted to the period in the 1930s when Eliel and Loja Saarinen built and furnished their home. © Cranbrook Art Museum/Balthazar Korab.

Most of us probably don’t process the amount of work that goes into opening a historic home. I’m guilty of it too. When I tour historic homes, I never think of the preparations that staff endured in order to ensure a positive experience for the visitor. Usually I am in awe of the architecture, interiors, and art. It’s an immense undertaking that should demand respect…or at least a blog post, if you ask me.

Preparing a house is a funny thing, right? Some of us don’t even prepare our own houses for a visit from friends or family. If you are of the unique breed of human that doesn’t clean as often as you should, like me, you probably have socks stuffed in your living room sofa right now!  Eliel and Loja Saarinen (who built and lived in the house from 1930 until Eliel’s death in 1950) didn’t leave us any smelly socks for us to find in their sofa, but I can tell you this, preparing a historic home is more than shaking out socks and two-month-old crumbs from those dirty sofas.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen's living room after it has been thoroughly cleaned and prepared.  Copyright Cranbrook Art Museum/Balthazar Korab.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen’s living room after it has been thoroughly cleaned and prepped for tours. © Cranbrook Art Museum/Balthazar Korab.

Opening Saarinen House requires weeks of scheduling and an amazing team of Art Academy graduate students and Art Museum staff to check off all of the items on the “to do” list. Imagine standing on a ladder for two hours while cleaning each 1×1 inch pane of glass in the leaded doors leading outside from what Loja Saarinen dubbed the “Cozy Corner”. It can wear on your patience and your hands, but those doors will sure sparkle! Cleaning textiles also has its own set of challenges. Using a mesh screen and vacuum to suck up all of the dust on the Studio and Living Room rugs require hours and hours and hours of attention, not to mention the hours and hours and hours of vacuuming noises ringing in your ears! And what about spiders? Oh yes, they are there too, weaving their own artistic wonders underneath all of those gorgeous dining room chairs and curtains.

Each 1×1 pane of glass in these doors needs to be cleaned and polished in preparation for tour season at Saarinen House. © Cranbrook Art Museum/Balthazar Korab.

Spiders I can handle, it’s those building preservation issues that really scare me!  A home built in the late 1920s always has its quirks and highlights, especially one designed with the mastery of Eliel Saarinen. Caring for plaster walls, leaded glass, tile, and building implements of the highest quality, however, is a craft in itself. Imagine my horror when plaster starts to flake and chip or when a wooden window sill starts to split. Those issues require more attention, conservation, and time, not to mention a whole other team of artisans and carpenters! So the off-season often ushers in the Saarinen House construction zone as well, with contracted “bees” flying in and out of the home.

So, the next time you tour a historic property, museum, or even your favorite art gallery, consider the team of “worker bees” buzzing about preparing the exhibition or space, and in this case executing all of the preparations necessary to give you a first-hand look as to how one of the greatest American architects lived and worked. And keep in mind that when the dust settles after the tour season, it will take even more work to prepare it for winter’s hibernation! Pretty powerful stuff I’d say.

By Gretchen Sawatzki, Associate Registrar

 

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