The Art of (Re)Construction

By Madigan Talmage-Bowers

Many of the structures Swinerton has built throughout our long history can be considered works of art—design masterpieces that reflect the aesthetics of their era, from Beaux Arts to Bauhaus, Art Deco to Postmodern. Today, Swinerton’s San Francisco building team is stepping even further back in time to recreate an important piece of art history at the Legion of Honor, a member of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Working alongside art conservationists, the project team is supporting the renovation of the Salon Doré—an ornate reception room originally built in France during the 18th-century reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

The salon is a remarkable surviving example of French Neoclassical interior architecture, although it has sustained damage from being dismantled and reassembled six times over the centuries. Once part of the opulent Hôtel de La Trémoille in Paris, the salon was shipped in pieces across the Atlantic and made appearances in private homes and galleries, from Manhattan to Silicon Valley, before being donated to the Legion of Honor’s permanent collection. The restoration will return the room to its original splendor and configuration, details of which were uncovered through archival research by Martin Chapman, the museum’s curator of European art.

The project has been carefully phased and coordinated, both to protect the delicate 200-year-old salon pieces and to preserve the experience of museum visitors. Swinerton first transformed the adjacent British art gallery into a conservation lab, complete with a 30-foot viewing window to engage visitors in the meticulous restoration process. As the gallery has no external doors, the team installed temporary HVAC units through a skylight to remove volatile chemicals. During off hours, all machinery and equipment was brought in through the basement, up a freight elevator, and carried—very carefully—through pristine galleries containing priceless works of art.

Museum staff dismantled the salon in pieces—including an ornate chandelier, a fireplace, arched mirrors, gilded doorways and walls, and large Corinthian pilasters—shipping some to other locations for storage and moving
others to the lab. There, the Legion of Honor’s master conservators have been faithfully restoring the salon pieces
to their former glory, using centuries-old techniques to bring back the luster of gold leaf paneling and the
sheen of upholstery.

Meanwhile, Swinerton altered the substructure of the salon gallery to fit the exact dimensions of the historical design. This included making the room square instead of rectangular. Crews had to be diligent in their work to protect original hardwood floors and pieces of the salon that remained in place. Once properly gilded and glazed, the wall panels, mirrors, furniture, and fixtures will be reinstalled in the altered gallery. When the revitalized Salon Doré opens to the public on April 5, visitors will be transported to Paris on the eve of the French Revolution.

Though the worlds of fine art and construction may seem to have little intersection, this project has proven the two can be complementary. “Working side-by-side with curators, we’ve all learned a lot from each other to meld the two worlds,” says Project Executive Paul Rodriguez. Has he soaked in some of the museum’s treasures while on the job? “Absolutely. I’m a big art lover. Every time I’m there, I pick a different gallery to explore.”

Bonne réussite (good luck) to the project team as they complete this renovation! Special thanks to Project Executive Paul Rodriguez, Superintendent Greg Piccolotti, and Project Manager Toni Lands.