Guest Blog: Jessica Serfilippi
June 26, 2019
It's with great pleasure that I introduce Schuyler Mansion Historical Interpreter Jessica Serfilippi, who writes today about her experiences creating an image in the mansion's exquisite new paper mache ceiling medallion, a recreation of what might have graced the best parlor during the Schuyler Sisters' lives. HAMILTON AND PEGGY! would NOT exist without the vast knowledge of the mansion historic site's staff, their devotion to research and presenting a full-bodied, comprehensive depiction of the family, and their immense generosity in sharing what they know. I am specifically indebted to Ian Mumpton and Danielle Funiciello, who answered my incessant questions, guided my thoughts, and were kind enough to read the manuscript for authenticity and tone. They both have graciously contributed wonderful blog posts in the past (/lauras-blog/guest-blog-american-loyalist-general-schuylers-house/ and /lauras-blog/guest-blog-historical-galentines/) Jessie came to the mansion after the novel was written, but she has been another thoughtful supporter of the novel and all things Schuyler Sisters. Her enthusiasm is inspiring! She recently completed a MFA in writing and I look forward to her writing wonderful historical fiction.
When I first started working as a historical interpreter at Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in May 2017, I learned that the Best Parlor once had a papier-mache ceiling. Each morning as I opened the shutters, I imagined the ornate ceiling and chandelier that must have been overhead when Eliza Schuyler married Alexander Hamilton in the room in December 1780.
Before I started working at Schuyler Mansion, the process for remaking the ceiling was already underway. Ithaca College scanned the original 18th century papier-mache ceiling in Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers. Peebles Island (Bureau of Historic Sites and Bureau of Historic Preservation Field Services) acquired a 3D printer that conservator Erin Moroney used to print moulds of the scans. By early winter of 2019, the moulds were being filled with paper pulp and the staff at Schuyler Mansion was invited to help.
When I arrived at Peebles Island on a mild February day, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I walked into a bright room with three tables, each populated with moulds and containers of paper pulp in water. My eyes were drawn to a large mould of a woman holding a book. I knew she had to be mine. As someone who’s always reading, the idea of bringing that particular ceiling element to life felt perfect.
What I didn’t expect was just how long it would take to make her. I had to stuff sopping wet pieces of paper pulp hard into her crevices or she wouldn’t be defined enough to go on the ceiling. It took over two hours of stuffing in the paper pulp and soaking up the extra water with a sponge before she was completed. By the end, my hands were bright red and cracked from reaching in and out of the watery bin because I’d foolishly forgone gloves. But for some reason, my chapped hands felt appropriate. They were a symbol of what it took to bring my ceiling element into the world. A few weeks later, Erin arrived with the elements and began the process of hot gluing them to the ceiling. Each morning, I popped into the mansion to photograph her progress.
Finally, the morning came when my element was adhered to the ceiling as part of the ornate center-piece. It felt surreal to see her up there and know I’d made her myself. To know a piece of myself will forever remain at a place I love so much brings me joy beyond words. Each time I lead a tour into the Best Parlor, I glance up at my reading lady. She’s the embodiment of everything I’ve given to Schuyler Mansion––all the time, energy, and love I’ve poured into my tours and the site. I imagine my words, the stories I tell about the Schuylers, wrapping themselves around her and sinking into her, as much a part of the mansion as she is. I know that long after I’ve left the site, she will remain. She’ll continue to watch over tours and soak up the words of future interpreters. Just as she’ll continue to be a part of the history, so will I.