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Flashback: Restoring the heavily burned Utah Governor's Mansion

By David Agrell

Last April a fire ravished Clandon Park, a Grade I-listed house near Guildford, Surrey, and earlier this week the National Trust announced it would use approximately £65 million in insurance compensation to salvage the once-stunning Palladian mansion. (You may recognize it from the 2008 film Keira Knightley film, The Duchess.)

Woodcarving from the Utah Governor's Mansion by Agrell Architectural Carving
We exactly replicated this badly burned Ionic capital.

Up for debate is how that money will be spent—or rather, how the mansion will be restored. But if it's returned to its original state, it will be one the largest restoration projects in years. "The fire at Clandon was shocking but it gives us the opportunity not only to show our respect for the heritage of the past but also to create new heritage for the future," National Trust director-general Dame Helen Ghosh told The Times.

Agrell Architectural Carving was involved a similar project back in the USA back in 1993, after a Christmas tree fire gutted the oak interior of Utah Governor's Mansion. It was decided that mansion, which was built in 1902 by silver magnate Thomas Kearns and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, would be returned to its original state at a cost of $7.8 million approximately £10 million today).

The original carvings were of the highest quality and had been commissioned at the end of the 19th century by Kearn's wife during a trip to Germany and Austria. (We know the carvings were undertaken by German-speaking craftspeople because we found remnants of newspaper stuck on the underside of some of the appliqués. Today, we still use newspaper to temporarily attach delicate carvings to a work surface.)

Our task was to exactly replicate the carvings, which included a large volume of intricately carved balustrades, newel posts, figures, capitals, columns, and egg-and-dart molding, as well as some significant stone work on the exterior. Luckily, much of it had held together well enough for us to copy or extrapolate the designs accurately.

Woodcarving from the Utah Governor's Mansion by Agrell Architectural Carving
We replicated hundreds of ballustrades for the main staircase.

It took us around 20,000 hours to complete the project and kept us busy for a couple of years. At the time, it was considered the largest woodcarving commission undertaken in the world in the previous ten years. For me personally, it was an opportunity as an 18-year-old apprentice to cut my teeth on a serious carving project. I wrote a bit about the experience in this article for Popular Mechanics magazine: "Dad handed me a blackened length of molding with eggs as smooth as the real thing and darts that were sharp and angular. Deep crevices accentuated the shapes, which repeated flawlessly along the length of the piece. My job was to reproduce it exactly, by hand, in a few hundred feet of oak."

Of course, we carved everything by hand, just as it was done originally. Our philosophy is that modern machines can't handle designs devised a century ago. "A skilled carver with the right tools is faster than any machine," my dad, Ian Agrell, told me for that Popular Mechanics article. "A machine would need an infinite amount of programming to do what a human can do. And then, when it's finished, you're left with a carving that looks, well, manufactured. It's not worth the trouble."

Ultimately, the carving we produced is indistinguishable from the original craftsmanship. It remains one of our proudest achievements as a company—especially given the work is in the public arena for all to appreciate. Our client was certainly pleased.

"Agrell Architectural Carving's attention to detail was astounding, from the carved capitals to the complex figure carving on the oak Botticelli column bases," said Robert Pett, project architect at MJSA Architects in Salt Lake City. "Their contribution and devotion to the project was without equal."

Check out the slideshow below.