BRUNSWICK – If all the parts of Richard Nixon’s presidential desk, including the holes where he had recording equipment attached, were replaced with exact replicas, would it still be the same desk?
Not according to Jon Brandon of Brunswick-based East Point Furniture Conservation.
Brandon and his wife, Linda Coit, will use this philosophy while conserving several historic pieces of furniture, Nixon’s desk included, in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol over the next five years.
East Point Furniture Conservation won a contract to conserve the furniture in the Senate’s various ceremonial rooms a year ago and now is beginning the on-site phase of the work.
Brandon and Coit have a two-week window that started Monday to finish the on-site work before moving pieces that need work to their Brunswick studio.
Brandon learned after an interview Tuesday that the contract prohibits him from talking to the media about the project. The secretary of the U.S. Senate’s office did not return calls Friday and it was unclear why the contract includes such a restriction.
Furniture conservation or preservation is much different from what is commonly referred to as furniture restoration, Brandon said.
“So an extreme example of restoration might be if you have a chair with a broken leg, and to repair it, someone takes all the legs off and makes exact replicas. So you have four new legs that look the same, but it’s not the same chair anymore,” Brandon said. “You’re losing all the evidence of the workmanship and the materials.”
Brandon and Coit are more like furniture detectives than repairmen, striving to stay true to conserve as much original material as possible. Brandon indicated a clock bonnet that arrived in the Brunswick shop from D.C. last week. A clock bonnet is the top case of a grandfather clock that fits over the face.
The bonnet in the East Point Conservation shop is a wooden and glass one from 1898. Brandon said it usually tops a 9-foot grandfather clock in Vice President Joe Biden’s ceremonial Senate office.
Even though it was designed to reside 9 feet in the air, the bonnet has hand-carved columns, flutes and finials, all decorated with details smaller than a fingernail.
Brandon pointed to one of the wooden finials with a 1-inch chunk missing off the end.
“So we will match the wood and then glue it in. It would be a bit bigger than I need, so then I could carve the existing design into it,” Brandon said. “Then we would need to match the finish.”
Brandon and Coit’s work in the Capitol will include researching the furniture pieces’ original look via old photographs and receipts, as well as repairing the objects while keeping as much original material and craftsmanship as possible.
They will also train the Capitol cleaning staff on how to care for the conserved objects, like removing dust with a brush and vacuum hose rather than oily wipes that can build residue over time.
“It’s a simple thing that you don’t think about until someone tells you how to dust,” Brandon said. “It’s not cleaning like you would clean your house. They’re the first line of defense to maintaining a part of our national history.”
But Brandon and Coit won’t just conserve the historic objects and leave them to the mercy of clumsy senators or brazen tourists. They will return once a year to make sure the furniture is doing OK and identify any other items in need of conservation.
Such a contract goes for anywhere between $30,000 and $40,000 every year for the five years, Brandon said. When the contract is up in 2018, it will be available for bids again.
East Point’s process to land the contract took three years from the original request for proposals in 2010. In 2011, Brandon and Coit were selected as one of five finalists and approved to examine the furniture and make a second proposal, including their plan and examples of similar work.
Brandon started his conservation career as a self-taught furniture aficionado in Virginia. He attended the four-year Furniture Conservation Training Program at the Smithsonian Institution and worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Brandon and Coit moved to Maine in 2001 and opened their studio.
Brandon said working on the objects in the Senate wing is much different from working on pieces in the museum because all of the Senate furniture is still in use.
Plus, some of the Senate furniture flaws themselves have historical significance, like Nixon’s desk. Brandon said one of the first things he was told about the project was he was not to fix the holes.
“They are such a valuable part of the desk’s story that of course I wouldn’t dream of filling them in,” Brandon said.
Karen Antonacci can be reached at 791-6377 or