Saving Mr. Staples

For a 208-year-old guy, Horace Staples looks pretty good.

Some say he’s never looked better.

For years his portrait — painted in 1934 by Samuel Brown, as a WPA project — hung in a deserted corner of the school he founded.

When the new building — a gazillion square feet larger than the one he donated in 1884 — opened a few years ago, Horace Staples was placed in a prominent spot. He smiled enigmatically — a philanthropic version of the Mona Lisa — right outside the main office.

Earlier this year, principal John Dodig — who loves the school as much as Horace did — noticed the founder was flaking. In fact, his paint had begun deteriorating in his “youth.” Previous conservation treatments failed.

Horace Staples, before undergoing treatment…

Dodig notified Carole Erger Fass, co-chair of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. She and co-chair Kathie Bennewitz called Peggy Van Witt, an art conservator in Kansas City.

Peggy, a former Westporter, had recently conserved the damaged portrait of another, equally famous school namesake: Edward T. Bedford. She was happy to help. Off Horace Staples went, to the Midwest.

Peggy unpacked him, and was not pleased.

“I just removed Mr. Staples from the box, and examined him closely,” she wrote to the WSPAC. “He is severely delaminating.”

Doesn’t it suck to delaminate?

“In a previous restoration the tacking edges were trimmed,” she explained. “He was glued to a panel which was then nailed to a stretcher bar. This makes it more complicated.”

Peggy had 2 choices: “inject him with an adhesive from the front, or remove him from the panel and put him on the vacuum table.” She ran a battery of tests, then treated him.

…and Horace Staples today.

Soon — all spiffed up — Mr. Staples was back in Westport. Once again, he hangs proudly outside the main office.

And — just like Horace Staples 128 years ago — Peggy Van Witt is a very generous soul.

She waived her $1,247 conservation treatment fee.

All of Westport — and the no longer delaminating or flaking Horace Staples — thank her.

22 responses to “Saving Mr. Staples

  1. Cherie Quain

    Dan, next we need to paint you!

  2. Ilene Mirkine

    A big thanks to everyone involved in this project! I’m sure we will all look differently at Mr. Staples next time we pass him in that hallway. Many might actually notice him for the first time.
    Maybe someone will create an “Art Smart” lesson from this for our grade schoolers?

  3. What a great story! The Westport network around the globe is something to behold.

  4. Susan Curtis Ifergan

    Happy Restoration! This should preserve him for another couple of hundred years.Too bad Peggy can’t work her magic on some of us! Dan, can you share anything about his personal story, and how he came to be the benefactor? I would be interested in knowing. Thanks.

  5. Ann Nonimouse

    Now if we could only get some of the overpaid school administrators to wave THEIR fees!

  6. Samuel Staples, owner of 400 plus acres in Easton, donated the property and had the first “free school” in Easton built called Staples Academy, before it was Easton (It had been part of Weston) in 1795. He left an endowment that still has money in it and used for students in Easton. Now there’s a third Samuel Staples School in Easton. The Staples family had quite the education legacy. Don’t know how they’re related though..

    • It’ll all be told when I post my “Staples back story” soon.

      One other note: In the 1600s, Mary Staples of Fairfield was burned as a witch!

      • The witch.. hmmm.. makes sense.. it was because of a lack of education and prominence of superstition that led to that witch burning. In 1650s the Connecticut Code told parishes of more than 50 families to start a school so that the children could be instructed to read the bible to keep Satan from taking over. They had no interest in education other than that back in the day. And they said parents were negligent. ha!

  7. A. David Wunsch

    The dumbest thing the town ever did was to demolish the old Staples High School Building on Riverside Avenue. This is unforgivable. Surely a good use could have been found for it.
    A. David Wunsch
    Staples High School

    • by far not the dumbest thing.. we should have a top ten list.. maybe 20.. of the dumbest things Westport ever did.

      • It’s awfully easy for you to be negative when you’re a Monday-morning quarterback looking back. Instead, how about a list of the top 10 things that the Town did (e.g., buying Longshore Park) that people like you initially branded as “unforgiveable” and “dumb”?

        • Remember the people who were violently opposed to the Compo Beach playground? And the many who thought we shouldn’t buy Cockenoe Island? (If we hadn’t done that, there would be a nuclear power plant there today.)

          • Does anyone know where that planned power plant ended up? My guess is in a poorer town with less political resources.

        • I don’t think you meant to reply to me.. but anyway Jeff.. but I was very involved in letter writing campaigns to stop what I thought were some of the dumber things the town eventually did. But would I be living here if I didn’t think that overall we’ve done a perfectly magnificent job making the town a fabulous place to be..? And sometimes.. believe it or not.. I was wrong in what I opposed.

          A few of my favorite things..
          The walk along the water by the library
          The library instead of a landfill
          Turning an extra school into Town Hall (kudos to Mr. Royce)
          Buying Longshore
          Buying Barons North and South
          The canal park housing complex
          The park across the street from canal park
          Parker Harding Plaza
          The Fairfield Furniture store renovation… and the brick buildings surrounding it.
          The parks along Riverside Avenue

          Let me know if anyone want to hear my negative ones.

          • Richard Lawrence Stein

            How about the town allowing Marlo Thomas knocking down the Frank Llyod Wright home on beachside. That was pretty bad.

            • How about closing five elementary schools? How about not knowing how large the pension deficit is or to whom it is owed? How about buying a $10 million dog toilet? How about…..well you get the picture.

  8. Eric Buchroeder

    Let’s not forget that it was Staples who invented the “That was easy” button. Also that brilliant ad campaign for back to school: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” that always makes me laugh. Staples has done a lot for Westport and the country.
    Staples H.S. ’70 (2.6 GPA)

  9. Linda Gramatky Smith

    Uh, I fact-checked once and the Staples big box stores are not related to Horace Staples, I believe (but I’m waiting with baited breath for Dan’s back story on him and his family).

    And to get back to the original post, as treasurer of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection committee, I want to add my thanks to Peggy Van Witt for her incredible generosity on waiving her fee AND for her incredible expertise at conserving art. Bravo, Peggy, and thanks from each and every person on the committee. We gave you huge applause … but you weren’t present to hear it!

  10. Excellent! What a beautiful job, a generous and gifted conservateur and a wonderful restoration of Horace! Now many Staples students, parents and friends for years to come can enjoy the face of a founder! Thank you Peggy, Carole and Kathie!!- Grace Connell

  11. Thank you for posting this.
    Mr Staples was a tricky restoration project. I felt that he was glaring at me while in my studio but had to work on this one: Mollie Donovan left such a legacy of good-will and generosity behind.
    Also, my son graduated from Staples. I am happy to give back to the wonderful Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.I will continue to restore and conserve art for Westport.