A Flourishing Art

March 6, 2012

Whether restoring the old or creating the new, the Boston Ornament Company relies on traditional methods in handcrafting its plaster architectural details.

Text by Janice Randall Rohlf

You never know what goes on behind closed doors. In a section of Boston’s Allston neighborhood where the unremarkable facades provoke little curiosity, what meets the eye inside the Boston Ornament Company’s showroom is enough to make you swoon. Bright-white plaster medallions, cornices, brackets and rosettes—like flourishes of icing on a wedding cake—cover every inch of the butter-yellow walls and dangle from the rafters.

More elaborate molds and fragments of ornamentation fill the adjacent workroom, a cavernous place where artisans hunch over their tables and focus on the task at hand: mixing plaster, running a cornice, painting, glazing and gilding or plying some other technique that, these days, machines usually do. Not here. “I’ve seen pictures of plaster shops in the 1800s, and they’re not much different, except they wore lab coats and bow ties,” says Boston Ornament owner Clayton Austin with a wry chuckle. His own attire—well-worn jeans and a sweatshirt—is powdered with plaster dust. “We do pretty much everything by hand,” he says.

Since 1978, Austin and his small team of meticulous craftsmen have left their highly regarded and sought-after imprint on structures as far-flung as Neiman Marcus in San Francisco and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most of his clients, both commercial and residential, are based in New England, with the bulk of them in the Greater Boston area.

Austin, a self-educated authority on historical Boston ­architecture, flips through his portfolio, rattling off some projects representative of his restoration work: “A custom-made piece for a church in Weymouth; a precast door frame in Back Bay; a fountain in Newport; columns for a church in Newton; a Cambridge courthouse.”

Relatively unheralded restoration work like this, once the bulk of Boston Ornament’s commissions, has taken a back seat of late to more high-profile undertakings. “Things have changed,” says Austin. “There’s more new work now than restoration.” Off the record, he names several captains of industry whose homes feature Boston Ornament Company’s unique custom plasterwork. One, for example, has a dome modeled after those of a tenth-century mosque. “People who are wealthy travel, and they get inspired by their travels,” he says.

Almost any detail can be replicated using ornamental plaster. Unlike wood, plaster is stable and durable. It is also an extremely versatile material that can be modeled, cast, incised, colored, stamped or stenciled.

The ornamental plaster trade began to flourish in this country in the middle of the eighteenth century as the popularity of Greek, Rococo, Gothic, Renaissance and Spanish styles outpaced simpler Georgian and Federal architecture. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, ornamental plaster became something of a lost art. Today’s renewed interest in the trade is due in part to preservation projects, both municipal and private, where maintaining historic character is a priority.

It’s never been easy for Austin to find workers with the high level of skill needed to create decorative plaster pieces of the quality he demands. Some of his craftsmen brought their skills with them from elsewhere, like Rimantis Zilionis, who fled Lithuania during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and now uses his extensive museum conservation experience at Boston Ornament. Lately, thanks to a growing interest in the principles and practices of the craft right here on home turf, students at local schools such as the North Bennet Street School and Massachusetts College of Art and Design often ask to train with Austin.

While he tirelessly consults historic photography and books with titles like Moorish Style and Beaux-Arts Estates, Austin himself has only been to Europe once. A particularly discriminating client sent him to Paris to study the difference between French limestone and Indiana limestone. Much to his surprise, he says, “The limestone in Paris was completely different.” Examining the material up close allowed him to render an accurate replication of it in faux stone.

Austin happened on work that’s as much a passion as it is a career. Still, he admits, if he hadn’t discovered this path, there’s no doubt he’d be doing something else that involved working with his hands. In the barn outside his log house in the city’s suburbs, the straight-talking, self-deprecating Boston native works with metal, wood, stone and other materials.“I love materials. I like building things,” he says simply. “It’s what I do.”

Editor’s Note: Boston Ornament Company can be reached at (617) 787-4118 or at www.bostonornament.com.

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