goodbye Texas…hello New York: the 10,000 Springs Pavilion lands at a third Affiliate venue

This is a follow-up to our July 2010 post  in which the pavilion was dismantled at Irving Arts Center and begin its journey to New York. Special thanks again to Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute Conservator Don Williams for writing this guest post. All photos courtesy of the author.

The fourth stop of the Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion on its trek to infinity and beyond was at the historic Flushing Town Hall, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Queens, New York.  Our adventure began as Bob Klein, my treasured volunteer and indispensable right hand since the beginning of this traveling road show three years ago, headed north from Maryland Sunday, October 10.  Since we were parting company afterwards, Bob drove as far as Metropark in New Jersey and we took the train into the city.  The schedule was for the trucks to arrive with the crates early Columbus Day morning, and early they did arrive. 

Just before dawn I got a call indicating that they had arrived and I needed to cross the street to join them a little earlier than I expected.  I guess in New York when they say “Seven o’clock” they really mean “6:30.”  With a large crew of movers, the crates were unpacked under my watchful and sometimes anxious eyes, and by 8:30 everything was safely inside.  The challenge for this venue is that the building is ancient and the access is too narrow for the three largest crates, so we literally unpacked the largest elements of the pavilion on the sidewalk and hand-carried them inside.  Yikes.  Fortunately the weather was beautiful.  I shudder to think what we would have done if it had been raining, which it did with a vengeance that night.

Shortly afterwards we were joined by fellow Groopsters Mike Mascelli and Jim Young, part of the noble cadre of three dozen volunteers (over the past four years) from the Professional Refinishers Group International whose generosity have made this project possible. 

As always, the first thing was to open the crates and examine the contents and scope-out the logistics for getting everything from the crates onto the exhibit platform in the right order and arrangement.  We had been plagued by complicated and nettlesome assemblies in the past, and we decided that for this venue we would go back to the original Chinese markings on each of the elements and put it together EXACTLY as was intended when it was first fabricated at the Red Sandalwood Museum.  Although this process meant the installation took a half day longer than before, it was well worth it as the pieces now fit together so precisely we found ourselves smacking our foreheads.  Every venue from now on will benefit from the pains we took at this one, and next year when we dismantle the pavilion we will mark each and every single piece of the 800 with English notations and Western numerals to make reassembly a piece of cake even if Bob and I are not involved.

The pavilion base was placed on the exhibit platform and the columns and beams for the lower structure were put in place.  Once we all knew the Chinese symbols for the compass points (and fortunately these elements were mostly marked with Arabic numerals) the work for this aspect moved smoothly but slowly as the pieces are intricately interlocked and installed precisely in a particular order.  We followed this with the installation of the mid-roof frame, again making sure to align everything according to the compass point symbols.  Ditto the cupola.  It went so well we were smacking each others’ foreheads. 

At the end of the first day we happened to have a critical mass of bodies on hand, so we installed the conical roof, which weighs about 600 pounds.  Hence the need for bodies.

Since there is not another chance to interact directly and safely with the conical roof after this point, it was time to dust and polish it.  A fabulous Japanese lacquering brush from the next door paint shop was a perfect tool for the dusting portion, and clean cheesecloth did the task for buffing up the surface.  We liked the lacquering brush so much we each bought one to try varnishing and glazing with it.  Actually, I bought four.

At the start of Day 2, Jim Young was selected for the honor of placing the finial at the crown of the roof.  This is a fairly delicate operation, as it requires standing stocking footed half on a ladder and half on the mid-roof frame carefully, then extending one hand holding and placing the heavy ornately carved finial sections.

The mirror and lighting for the inside, to illuminate and showcase the amazing carved dragon on the underside of the roof, completed our “inside” work for the most part.

At this point the pace of work slowed down.  When there are a few pieces with Chinese characters, placing them is fairly uncomplicated.  The same cannot be said when you have dozens of “identical” elements with near-identical markings.  After a bit of struggling with this we called on the maitre-de at the nearby Chinese restaurant, William Cheng, to assist us by decoding the nomenclature.  His help was a vital contribution to our success in this enterprise.  Even so it took us a lot of time to get everything in its correct place according to the compass point print-outs Bob had prepared in advance.

Soon the substructures started to take shape under the observing gaze of a reporter and photographer from the Daily News, who found the artifact fascinating.  How could they not?  As we began to work more intimately with the lower structure, we removed our shoes so as not to accidentally scuff the wood.  We got a good chuckle by the reporter’s quizzical observation and query, “What’s with you old guys and gray thermal socks?  Was there some sort of unwritten code about woodworkers’ uniforms?”  We are thinking of naming ourselves the Grey Sock Pavilionistas.

Before long the pavilion began to take shape fully.  Jim and Mike had to depart after the second day, and by that point we were well on the way to completion.  The mid-roof sections and their carved peaks were installed, as were all the frames and pierced grills over the window openings and frames for the entry doors. 

On day three the crates were removed at 7 AM and we finished installing all the alcove doors and conduct the final dusting and polishing of every area we could safely reach.   We were reminded again at this point of the truly magnificent nature of this architectural model.

I was particularly pleased with a couple of decisions late in the process to include the 1:2 scale model I had built of a portion of the timber post and the roof structure, which gives the visitors a little better sense of the complexity of Chinese traditional roof structures, but especially in the inclusion in the exhibit space of one of Rick Yamada’s exquisite packing crates for the artifact.  The presence of the elegant crate in the exhibit will re-emphasize the special-ness of the Pavilion and the care that has gone into safeguarding it for transport and installation, and to remind visitors that caring for their treasured keepsakes is itself a special undertaking.

We will return in September 2011 to dismantle and pack the Pavilion for its next stop, and hope you can get a chance to see it in Flushing or wherever it goes next.

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