Early this month, the nearly 150-year-old wrought-iron staircase at Gari Melchers Home and Studio in Belmont was deemed one of Virginia’s Top Ten Endangered Artifacts.
According to a university press release, the railing was forged around 1845 and was chosen for the Top Ten Endangered Artifacts list by an independent review panel from 25 nominations across Virginia.
The Top Ten Endangered Artifacts list is a development by the Virginia Collections Initiative and the Virginia Association of Museums.
The staircase is an iconic structure at Belmont and has served as the set to numerous pictures over the years from visitors, event guests and weddings.
University of Mary Washington Senior Cameron Henry, a historic preservation major and the president of UMW’s Historic Preservation Club, visited Belmont last year for a class.
He remembers the staircase as an “ornate, stylistic element made of gracefully curled wrought-iron and dozens of cast-iron floral medallions.”
He added that, “because the associated stair is somewhat plain by comparison, the heavily detailed railing confers a great deal of the entrance’s style, and therefore would be a shame to lose.”
Michelle Crow-Dolby, education and communications manager of Melchers, said the new publicity of the structure will increase awareness of the site’s existence. She added that now as a famed historical location, Melchers can be a venue for the art and historic preservation students at UMW.
“I’d love to see more students visit,” Crow-Dolby said.
She added that UMW historic preservation students can closely study this site and its long history.
Senior Mandi Solomon recently did a project on the history of downtown and has visited Belmont before.
“It definitely has some appeal to it,” said Solomon. “You can’t save something if you don’t know the history of it.”
Belmont is a 28-acre estate where artist Gari Melcher and his wife, Corrine, lived. Corrine donated the property to the Commonwealth of Virginia as an art museum and historic site in 1955.
According to the Melchers Home and Studio website, the estate includes the 1970’s home with the original furnishings, Melchers’ studio and over 500 of his works of art, the largest collection of his works in the world.
“The whole purpose of the program is to increase awareness for artifacts that need attention,” said David Berreth, director of Melchers Home and Studio.
Berreth explained that the site’s management was focused more on restoring the buildings over the past 15 years and as a result, some parts of the buildings were not addressed.
“Because of publicity, people will pay more attention, which will help raise funds for the restoration of the staircase,” said Berreth.
According to Crow-Dolby, the main goal of the site’s team is to secure funds and interest to restore and preserve the staircase. The work has accumulated some damage with rust as it has faced the elements for so long.
“I hope it can be preserved,” Henry said. “Putting all historical significance and age aside, the railing is quite intricate and likely took much skill and time to construct. It would be a shame to see something of that quality be removed, or corrode away.”
The first step of the restoration process is a conservation assessment, according to Crow-Dolby.
This assessment will produce a rough number for the cost of the artifact’s restoration. The restoration will be paid for by fundraising as well as local, regional or national grants.
“Positive publicity is always welcome,” said Crow-Dolby. She hopes positive publicity will bring funds towards the restoration of the famous wrought-iron staircase.
Henry hopes funds will soon reach the Melchers Home and Studio to use for restoring the wrought-iron staircase.
“It would be great to see the school or state foot the bill for the Belmont railing’s conservation, but in the current economic climate it isn’t promising that a governmental institution, beyond perhaps the federal government, will take allot the needed money for the project, at least without pressure,” Henry said.
The property is now operated by the University of Mary Washington and is a Virginia and National Historic Landmark.
Photo by Alison Thoet.