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For Newporter, Wallcoverings a Passion

Newport — A faded photograph, a frayed and worn fragment or perhaps just a verbal description.

Often, that is all the evidence Laura McCoy has to work with when she begins her research. Her objective is to recreate the original design of an authentic historic wallcovering.

“I call myself a wallpaper archaeologist,” McCoy said during a recent interview. “Sometimes people bring me almost nothing, or I’ll get fragmentary evidence, such as a little strip. A big fragment is great.

“Research, research, research,” McCoy replied when asked how she is able to determine the original pattern with only bits and pieces or an old black and white photograph, sometimes less, to get started.

Her experience in the industry, extensive knowledge of wallcoverings and exhaustive research combine to aid McCoy in resolving the mystery of the original pattern. Her artistic talent then takes over to recreate the design in all its intricate detail.

Since starting Laura McCoy Designs, Inc. in 1987, McCoy has done 37 museum houses and private homes and recreated more than 125 wallpapers. Among the more notable designs are those in the homes of three past presidents: Andrew Jackson, Lyndon Johnson and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Tomorrow, she will discuss her work at a Newport Historical Society presentation titled Trash to Treasure: Restoration and Recreation of Historic Wallpaper.

The talk begins at 6:30 in the Richards Library ballroom.

From an early age, McCoy had formal training in wallcovering while working for her family’s interior design studio and art gallery in a small town in Indiana where she grew up. She also received a somewhat informal education in history that stimulated her love of the past.

“My interest has always been in history,” McCoy said. “I was raised in a pre-Civil War home and my best friend growing up was a 75-year-old lady. I used to sit on her front porch and listen to stories about her grandfather driving a stagecoach.”

After earning degrees in English literature and art and interior design from the University of Indiana, McCoy landed a job in Connecticut with a wallcovering company. She rose to the position of “Wallcovering Stylist” and supervised first run production at the company’s printing plants across the country. When she was given the opportunity to oversee a historic wallpaper line, McCoy realized that the historic designs she found in archives and old homes were what really inspired her. Yet, she rarely found them authentically reproduced in the retail market where she worked.

“When I was young, I thought how great it would be if I could work in history and interior design together. I didn’t know back then it could be done. This work is such a specialty, only a few people do it.”

McCoy’s reproductions cover a 200-year period from 1770 to 1970. In addition to relying on some visual evidence of the wallcovering, information on the house or building is also key.

“I tell the client I need all the historic information on the house; when it was built, who built it, the level of society and what room,” McCoy said. “I need to know if it is the parlor, bedroom, hallway or dining room.”

For the Hayes home, Spiegel Grove in Fremont, Ohio, McCoy said she worked from some fragments but primarily from faded photographs.

“He (Hayes) loved Spiegel Grove,” said McCoy, noting that he moved back there after his one term as president ended in 1880. “The wallpapers there are silk screen reproductions with a few digital borders.”

For Jackson’s home in Tennessee, Hermitage, McCoy reproduced a wallcovering for the parlor.

She has also done historic reproductions for the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., the Gore Place in Waltham, Mass., and the Comal County Court House in New Braunfells, Texas. Her work has been featured on HGTV and appeared in Preservation magazine and Antiques magazine.

McCoy’s passion for interior design and history is matched by her love of Newport, where she and her husband moved about three years ago from Fairfield County in Connecticut, with their daughters, Emily and Abigail.

McCoy said they had talked about moving away from the traffic and congestion of southwest Connecticut — they lived a stone’s throw from the Connecticut Turnpike — and spent about five years searching in the Newport/Claremont area and the Plymouth/Holderness region.

“I loved Newport right off,” said McCoy. “It is a real small New England town and everyone is so friendly. I fell in love with the Richards Library and the green.”

When choosing Newport, McCoy said she and her husband Scott, a computer consultant, had a “bucket list” that included being close to water, skiing, a college and things to do. McCoy said the Newport area has it all and plenty more.

“We love the privacy and the quiet living,” she said, adding that anyone who says there is nothing to do around the area is “woefully misinformed.”

When she speaks tomorrow, McCoy will also focus on the wallpaper at The Fells in Newbury, N.H.

“The Fells is such a wonderful local treasure and has a wealth of historic wallpaper.”

The most impressive wallpaper in the hall was originally made in France 1833 and depicts scenes from “The Chase,” McCoy said.

It was produced in 1883 by a French company, Zuber and Cie, that was founded by Jean Zuber in 1797. The scenic design set is made up of 32 panels, each one approximately 18 inches wide.

“Every color is from a block print and they had to use over 1,000 blocks to make the set,” McCoy said. “In the course of my lecture I actually show how all the blocks come together to become the final wallpaper.”

Also on display during the program will be several original wallpaper samples from Mc Coy’s extensive archives as well as printing tools and samples of her work.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.