Come Learn About Historic Tavern Stenciling with Deb Marquis-Cascio -- By Arabeth Balasko
When Deb, the Greenbrier Historical Society's Lead Docent and Museum Associate, began an intensive stenciling project in July 2021 at the North House Museum, she embarked on a journey that would transform our historic space into a working tavern room!
This stenciling project has been a true "labor of love," for the Greenbrier Historical Society team. The newly configured area has become a mode of "transport," which has enabled patrons to step back into time and visit the Frazer's Star Hotel Tavern Room, which was a popular establishment in Lewisburg, West Virginia during the 1830s-1850s.
In 1836, James Frazer purchased the North House. He immediately began to renovate and expand the property's footprint, and turned the once familial dwelling into the Frazer's Star Hotel and Tavern. During these renovations, Frazer added two additional wings of rooms for guests and other various outbuildings.
Recently, the North House Museum team found an 1854 description of the property under Frazer's ownership, which stated, "...there are two good cellars, an orchard, a vegetable garden, a fifty-horse stable, outhouses comprising of servants’ (enslaved) cabins, kitchens, a meat house, and a dairy." The Frazer Star Hotel and Tavern operated until Frazer’s death in 1854.
Thanks to the hard work of the North House Museum team, the newly renovated Tavern Room now serves as both an educational period room and an event space. During their visit, visitor's can learn about the history of the Frazer family, the enslaved presence at the Star Hotel, and the role of hotels and resorts during the mid-1800s.
To learn more about the most eye-catching addition to the Tavern Room, the period-accurate historic stenciling, check out the interview below between Greenbrier Historical Society AmeriCorps Member, Arabeth, and our skilled stencil artist, Deb.
Q. What drew you to pick those specific color schemes and patterns for the Tavern Room stenciling project, Deb?
A. "Well, the okra color for the walls was already picked out from historic paint samples -- our goal was to make it as authentic and historic to the time period as possible. I ended up doing a lot of research on 19th century Tavern Rooms because we did not have any real pictures of what the Tavern Room here looked like at that time -- but even if we had, they would have been in black and white anyway. Ironically, I kept seeing the okra colored walls in my research, and it was really kind of serendipitous that we had already chosen that color for the walls! The colors I saw used the most were the reds, rusts, greens, and okras. We decided that if we stuck to just a few colors in our scheme, we could put as many patterns up as we wanted to in the room -- and it would all go together, it would all be cohesive!
I choose the pineapple since it symbolized a sign of welcome. It would often go over doorways and in public places. The other stencils I choose were pretty typical to the day, they didn't necessarily have a specific meaning. The bird was chosen because it is going to be an overall theme of the room -- both above the mantel and incorporated into the fabric for the curtains. The other stencils were just 1800s stencils that looked like they would be a good fit for this space."
Q. How long did it take you to complete the project? Were you surprised by the time frame?
A. "Well, we started with the fireplace stenciling when the Tavern Room officially opened in July, and it was a very quick 1-hour process. Very few stencils were put up, but it gave an idea for people to see what was to come! I got started on the more in-depth stenciling in September, and there is one more large stencil I am waiting on at this time. Then I think the room will be done. But, maybe not! I'm still looking around seeing some bare spaces that need to be filled. Some of the pictures I saw of old Tavern Rooms , well the walls were covered COMPLETELY in stencils! It looked like wallpaper. I was amazed looking at them thinking it must have taken them such a long time to do all of that. But, that's how they did then. Wallpaper was very expensive back then. Stenciling was an inexpensive way to get that same look and pattern. As I look around in here, I think, "Yeah, there is quite a bit in here, but I can still do more!" This was the first time I had done anything like this, so I really did not have a timeline in mind. But in the back of my mind I though it was probably going to take me about a month. Hahahaha, and I went well past that! I found some of the patterns to be very tedious and time consuming. The ones that I thought would be the easiest tended to be the ones that were the most time consuming! It took a little longer than I anticipated, but in the end, I think it was worth it."
Q. Have you ever done a project like this in a historical space/home? Tell us a little bit about your background with interior design?
A. "I had never done anything like this in a historic space, but I did do interior design projects for private homes. Not so much stenciling, but sponging was very popular when I did interior design back then. And I did sponges that were very similar to the stencils -- and sponges gave a finished look too, just like the stencil do. This was kind of a first time with this type of project."
Q. What was your favorite part about the stenciling project? What was a bit of a challenge -- if anything?
A. "I enjoyed seeing it all come together, because it really wasn't planned...it really kind of came along as I went from part to part in the room. I let the room dictate to me what it needed. There are parts from different things in the room that are put together. The hardest part was figuring out the measurements. That was the part I most disliked. It took me a few days of measuring and remeasuring -- one wall is bit longer than the other so I had to fit the same patterns into spaces with different measurements. But, I bet that you can't tell which wall was bigger -- and guess what, I am not going to tell you!"
Q. As our main docent, what have been some of the comments you’ve heard from our visitors during your tours of the space?
A. "Everyone seems to really like it! I have not heard anything negative at this point. People tell me that they like this room before they even know I had anything to do with it. People have said that this room makes them feel comfortable. I notice that people tend to linger in the room, too -- they take longer in the space -- they are not in any rush to get out. Sometimes I have to encourage people to go into the next room, the next exhibit space to keep things moving for the tour. Hahahaha! They just want to stay in here, and often times, they will revisit the space again once the tour is over. I even had a gentlemen walk into the museum specifically asking to see this room. He had heard about it, and he wanted to see it for himself in person. I feel that this room has done the purpose of what we all had hoped it would -- what it was intended to do. And that makes me glad -- it had done what I hoped it would do."
Thank you Deb, for all of your hard work at bringing the Tavern Room alive with color and vibrancy!
After learning about historic stenciling from Deb, are you interested in beginning your own project? Well, you're in luck! Come visit the Greenbrier Historical Society Library and Archive and take a look at our copy of Early American Wall Stencils in Color. You just may find a pattern that inspires your inner artist! We are open from 10:00-4:00 Tuesday through Saturday -- please call ahead to make an appointment.
And here are some helpful tips, too if you are looking to start your own project:
Are you are interested in seeing our Tavern Room stenciling in person? We hope that you can come visit us! You can try your hand at writing with quill and ink, or attempt a game of historic loo with your group. For those of age, you can even come join us during First Fridays and other special events and special occasions, and enjoy Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company's Ole Ran'l Pilsner on draft in the Tavern Room.
We look forward to seeing you there, one day soon...
Deb Marquis-Cascio Bio:
Deb had lived in Connecticut her whole life until she moved to Maxwelton 8-years ago. Her and her husband of 9-years, Greg, moved to West Virginia when Greg took a job at the hospital.
Before joining us at the Greenbrier Historical Society, Deb was an interior designer for a high-end retailer and also worked on the side on both large and small design projects. Deb left the design field around 1988 to work for a doctor. She continued her work as an office manager for 20+ years until leaving the field in 2005.
Deb has two daughters, Danielle and Melissa, and two grandkids, Elizabeth and Gabriel.
One of Deb's personal projects is sewing burial gowns for stillborn babies out of donated wedding dresses. She has truly been a great asset to the Greenbrier Historical Society over the last 3.5 years.