Bringing It Back

Bringing It Back

In the front room at Lyric Hall Antiques and Conservation, a 400-year-old mirror is undergoing surgery. Whole passages of its gilt frame—florid segments that cross the mirror like vines—are missing and have to be carefully recreated, then gilded to match. John Cavaliere, the owner and principal of Lyric Hall, takes up a micron-thin square of gilding with a brush and draws it over a section of the mirror’s crest, which had already been painted red. “The red,” Cavaliere explains, “is the substrate for gold leaf. Because gold is so thin that whatever it goes on top of pokes through. And the original substrate was red clay.” The movement of the brush instantly pulverizes the leaf into a golden blush.

Even lying flat on an operating table, the mirror emanates a lustrous splendor. Cavaliere catalogs its charms. “We have this goddess that reigns supreme on this incredible flourish of ornamentation and flowers and cornucopias of fruit and baskets and eggs and darts. Look at these campos leaves. I’ve never seen this before. How they’re just sort of like tendrils…” Surrounding the worktable are other great vintage objects and objects carefully crafted to look vintage: a formidable wood-burning stove like something in the engine room of a turn-of-the-century ocean liner; a tall, darkly painted bar Cavaliere designed after one he had stumbled upon in Sienna; old paintings spiderwebbed with craquelure, their subjects in various states of reemergence. To start, Cavaliere specialized in restoring rococo frames, but over the decades he’s come to master the application of wood, gesso, solvents, veneers and glazes to virtually any antique surface.

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His biggest restoration project is Lyric Hall itself, which he acquired in 2006 and fashioned into something that speaks to the building’s storied past. According to Cavaliere, three Italian American brothers built it in 1913 to house a movie theater. “It was called a nickelette. It would be for five cents and you could watch the Lumiere brothers. Really primitive silent film. It didn’t last very long.” A succession of owners transformed the building first into a livery service, then an auto repair shop, then an auto parts store, then a bike shop, then a candy store. By the time Cavaliere first entered the building, it was an antique shop. “I’ve got to say it was the wreck of the Hesperus when I first saw it,” remembers Cavaliere. “It was… called Wayne Chorney’s, and he used to sell games and jukeboxes and Coca-Cola memorabilia… And I remember coming here and having so much fun rooting around, was unloved. The ceiling was about seven feet high to conserve the heat.”

Shortly thereafter in his own shop, then on State Street, Cavaliere experienced one of those fateful visitations, like the protagonist in a noir. “I was working on a picture frame… I forgot to lock the door and Wayne walked in… and I said, ‘Gee, Wayne, you caught me at a bad time.’ And he goes, ‘That’s alright. I’m going to sell you my building.’ I said, ‘What? I don’t want a building. I’m happy as a clam.’ And he said, ‘All I ask is that you come look at it,’ and he gave me his card and 10 days later I grudgingly walked through… He didn’t waste any time. He took me… up in the loft and you could see the proscenium.”

As it turned out, the prospect of owning a piece of real estate that begged for restoration itself was too enticing to pass up. As the new owner, Cavaliere began recreating the original theater space, combining antique and replicated elements to channel what it might have been like. In the process, his work and his workshop emerged as heirloom reflections of each other. During one of my visits, under a chandelier he had gilded and hung above the theater space, a carefully sanded and stripped wooden frame awaited its own gilding. In the nearby parlor, a voluptuous porcelain bathtub was in the process of being cleaned next to a 19th-century pump handle vacuum cleaner that Cavaliere had finished restoring. In the kitchen, Cavaliere and his assistants discussed the day’s work over lunch prepared on a working prewar stove, which manages to feel both vintage and fresh.

Indeed, nuanced restoration is predicated on erasing the signs of itself. In the case of the centuries-old mirror in the front room, re-gilding its restored crest is just the beginning. Cavaliere later removes some of the leaf he had just brushed on, then applies pigments and glazes to give the appearance of decades of gentle wear. “It’s a dance,” he says. “We want it to look like it was handled and cleaned over tide and time. That’s what makes it valuable. Otherwise it would just be a big old gilt, overwrought thing that is hard to look at. It would be kind of gaudy actually.”

The theater, too, was built to look “ever thus,” but shortly came the prospect of the space undergoing actual wear as artists performed and crowds attended. “I think it sort of stirred up the ghosts,” Cavaliere says. Movie screenings, theatrical shows, musical performances and more activated the theater for the better part of a decade starting in 2010. “So what happened is, I’d be working on antiques in the daytime and then at night we’d have a show,” Cavaliere says. His work with antiques was eventually “relegated… to the basement.” Then, in 2018, waning audiences quieted the theater venture, and the restoration business reclaimed Lyric Hall.

Passersby can now glimpse the kind of work that museums do in laboratories from the sidewalk. They might have seen ceramicist Violet Harlow at work on the ancient mirror, making flowers out of compo—a moldable, clay-like resin—using a wood-handled knife. Sometimes she uses the curve of the handle itself. The flowers are just one element of a passage she has to recreate on the ancient mirror’s frame. An app on her smartphone provides a reference point, by taking an image of the intact passage on the other side of the mirror and reversing it, but the actual sculpting is done exactly the way it was done a century before phones of any kind. Sometimes, a missing element can be filled in with a casting taken from another frame of the same vintage. “In fact, we have a whole library of castings, don’t we, Violet?” Cavaliere says. “We take samples of everything. It’s like the DNA of each of these pieces stays with us.”

Cavaliere and Harlow have been absorbed in the mirror for about six weeks. The work began with the wooden backing, which had arrived stippled with worm holes made by generations of boring insects. Cavaliere hands me a piece of the original wood, which appears hard and heavy but is as light and airy as a sponge. Though he and Harlow are the first to address the compromised backing, Cavaliere derives a certain satisfaction from being the latest in a long line of restorers who’ve worked on the mirror. “God knows how many people had their hand in this piece, but you can tell the progression.” He points to various sections of the frame. “This is the original, and it has its way. Then you have this old repair from maybe 150 years ago and it’s kind of stiff. And then this one is closer to the original, but you don’t want it to be perfect. You want it to transmit our spirit into it and its spirit into us. Not to be too florid, but it’s sort of like a communion.”

Lyric Hall Antiques and Conservation
827 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
By appointment
(203) 389-8885

Written by David Zukowski.

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