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Painting With Light: Gilding the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room

By: William Adair and  |  November 9, 2021

After having spent ten years at the Smithsonian, I started my own company in 1982. Hiring and training great artisans who became like a family, I slowly built offices in Washington DC and Santa Barbara through a variety of projects and clients on both coasts (on the east coast, the Department of State, Mount Vernon and the White House; on the other side of the country, the Getty, the Santa Barbara Museum, and San Simeon’s Hearst Castle, to name a few). But eventually and for a number of reasons, expenses exceeded income, and the banks were not lending money to small companies such as my own.

I returned to Washington, where there was a stack of bills and not much in the way of work for the dedicated crew I had hired the previous year. I sent a $100 check to my gold leaf supplier as a partial payment on a $17,000 invoice. A few days later, Peter Sepp of Sepp Leaf Products called me and thanked me for the payment, and then asked me, would I like to have another box of gold? I thanked him profusely for his faith in me.

It was the very next week that I received a call from Mr. Clement Conger, Curator of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the U.S. Department of State.

Mr. Conger requested that I gild a ceiling cornice to serve as a sample for John Blatteau, the architect responsible for transforming the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room. He told me that the 6-foot sample would have to be done on speculation. I agreed, took my last and only box of gold, and climbed the scaffold.

A week later, I was awarded the contract to do the 100-foot-long ceiling in 23k gold leaf. 

The job was a challenge, to say the least. The most ominous aspect was the sheer scale of the project. The ceiling required over 90,000 hand-beaten leaves of gold — roughly 45 ounces of the material, with each leaf 3 ¼ inches square — and the hands of 30 skilled artisans to apply it. About $20,000 gold bullion was donated by Mr. Samuel Etris on behalf of the Gold and Silver Institute. Sam told us it was obtained from the Englehard mines in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and he was happy to contribute to such a worthwhile endeavor as American diplomacy.

The Englehards would become one of many philanthropic families who contributed to Mr. Conger’s groundbreaking project to transform the State Rooms and to build a collection of fine and decorative arts that represent American culture. After this, Mr. Conger jokingly referred to me as his “Golden Ambassador.”

It was not far from the truth, as I soon found myself covered in flecks of gold leaf for the next three months while laying it on the room’s ceiling, cornice and walls. Perched on a scaffold, I supervised, trained and worked alongside three crews of ten artisans each, trying to meet our deadline with safety and efficiency despite the numerous challenges. I had never gilded a ceiling so large as the Franklin Room’s, and soon discovered that after extended periods of time with one’s hands above their head, the blood runs from them, and numbness and tingling set in. The gold was flying everywhere at first, as the air conditioning ducts would suddenly come on and the delicate leaf would be scattered like leaves in a hurricane — whoosh — and the room was sprinkled with tiny flecks of gold. 

I quickly realized that I needed experienced gilders to help train the novices, so I hired my former crew from California to assist. We were soon working like a well-oiled machine. Contributing to this was my fortuitous discovery of a new tool for applying the leaf.  While walking through Woodward and Lothrop department store past the cosmetic counter during the holidays, I spotted a circular sponge blending tool with a short handle. I bought every last one they had in stock: the perfect device for picking up the leaf and applying it to the ceiling in one swift gesture of the hand. It was so fortunate a find and so effective a tool that it was deemed a Christmas miracle by the crew. 

The biggest joy was working with other craftsmen and artists. The group of artisans who worked alongside us included Ahmed Sleiman, who made the columns out of Scagliola and cast the Corinthian Capitals in plaster. These were sculpted by David Flaherty, and finally gilded by our team.

It was near the end of our seemingly endless project when we were instructed one day to take a break. Secretary George Shultz, we were told, wished to inspect the project.

Afterward, I was called back in the room and told that Secretary Shultz noticed that a mistake had been made: we had missed the gold leaf on the “e” of  e pluribus Unum in the room’s center medallion. I sheepishly walked over to the center of the room to see the blunder, and indeed, much to my horror, the letter appeared to be black, with no sparkling gold reflections all the other letters so impressively possessed. I took one step towards the left of center, and the gold suddenly illuminated. A weight was lifted from my shoulders as I realized that no mistake had been made, and that this illusion created by reflections and counter-reflections was, in fact, a confirmation of our success. The gratifying response delivered to Mr. Conger and the secretary of state was a citation of Ceninno Cininni’s 14th-century handbook on gilding:

“How do you know when the gold is bright enough?
I answer you, when it turns black from its own brilliance.”