My Volunteer Journal: Episode 15 – Restoring the Past at the Heritage Square Museum

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Dearest Journal – How long it has been since I spent a leisurely Saturday sleeping instead of waking at the dawn hours in order to do stressful labors. Indeed my poor Victorian sensibilities are overwrought with the wear to my once dainty fingers. Today again I found myself scrubbing the exterior of a grand home, which was neither my friends nor mine. Surely these habits must abate or I will never have time to learn needlepoint, aimless walking or the harp. Yours on the Ides of March – Ms. Payne

I love the Victorian Era. It seemed to be such a passionate period fueled by public shows of modesty that drove people mad. This emotional prison helped fire the imagination of great writers who produced outstanding romantic pieces and some of the most sinister villains of all time (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Others poured their inexpressible emotions into architectural masterpieces and produced homes that were works of art with custom carving and elaborately painted exteriors.

Victorian homes butter my toast so I was ecstatic at the prospect of helping restore one today during the Mayor’s Day of Service at Heritage Square Museum. Over the last 40 years this small museum in South Pasadena has managed to save 8 Victorian structures from demolition and is painstakingly trying to restore them.

heritage-square-house-1When I arrived at the museum with my newly acquired volunteer buddy KiYun we signed in and were given volunteer day t-shirts (I will someday have a quilt made from all the t-shirts I have been handed on this mission). Then we snacked on donuts and waited for the dozens of other volunteers to assemble. The Mayor’s Day of Service luckily attracted some school groups and the local painters union, so there were easily over 50 people in attendance. The painters union barely needed instruction they started to work right away on the gorgeous, but decaying Perry Mansion from 1876 (pictured on the right thanks to KiYun). Heritage Square’s Director of Development, Brian, took the rest of us on a walk around the museum to assign jobs. The work load ahead of us was tremendous - The Perry House had to be sanded, prepped and painted, the gardens had to be planted, graffiti needed to be removed from the property, and a steep mud bank had to be terraced. Lots of work – very little time.

KiYun and I jumped around to different jobs depending on where we were needed. We start out in the garden weeding and hacking at overgrown plants. Then we are put to work chipping paint off of old chairs and sanding them. Finally, we assisted with the exterior renovations on the Perry Mansion. We were given a section of the house to sand and prep for a new coat of white paint. No belt sander here – the grooves and corners of the ornate home had to be sanded by hand. Under our furious scrubbing the old wood smoothed out quickly, which led the leader of the painting crew to offer me a house-painting job. Perhaps Sir. Perhaps.

During breaks I got to wander the museum discovering quite a few hidden treasures like: a fully restored model T in the old Carriage Barn, dozens of ornate metal street lights waiting to be shined and installed, and old train cars and tracks underneath tarps which I imagine are scheduled to be redone soon. KiYun and I also got to look into the fully refurbished Hale House, which looks like a jewel box on the inside.

With everyone’s hard work from 9 am to 12pm we made progress on all the work, but unfortunately the house looked to only be 1/5th of the way done at noon. I hope more volunteers will descend on the museum in the near future to finish the project. The Perry Mansion and all the rescued structures are gorgeous and an asset to the city.

Besides volunteering to do restoration work the museum needs volunteers for special events and to be a tour guides. To become a tour guide you will have to take a series of classes, but the benefits include learning about Los Angeles history, architecture, and interior design.

Visit Heritage Square’s Website to get more information on volunteer opportunities. If you don’t live in Southern California you can find a museum like Heritage Square by visiting The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums – no reenacting required.