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Artists Collaborate to Restore Piece of Campus History

The restoration of an antique chair once used by the second president of the college required careful attention to both its wooden frame and embroidered upholstery. Luckily, the necessary expertise was close at hand.

The chair has remained in the Alumni House since the building served as the residence of the Rev. Dennis Burke, O.Praem., ’26.

Bill Bohné (Art) believes the chair dates from the 18th century or possibly earlier. He undertook a thorough cleaning of the frame, followed by an application of oil to bring out the grain of the original walnut. 

The college called upon Carolyn Keliher, owner of Woolin’ Inn Studio in Kimberly, to work on the refurbishment of the embroidered fabric. Keliher, whose work typically has her creating custom vestments for the clergy, was delighted to take on the task but soon learned it would not be an easy one. 

The old fabric that had been used to reupholster the chair was one not typically used for that purpose – it was a 22-count aida fabric, more regularly used for cross-stitch work. To replicate the shade of the original, Keliher located a piece of crewel wool fabric that she then dyed with coffee through five processes to ensure a perfect match. As she stitched the design, she varied the shades of thread to account for colors that had faded toward the center of the chair. 

Shan Bryan-Hanson (Art), curator of the college’s art collection, helped facilitate the restoration. She says: “To me, this process was really about preserving a piece of St. Norbert College history. Objects like this chair provide a direct, tangible connection to the past.” 

With the refurbishment now complete, Bryan-Hanson is helping determine the perfect location to display the piece.

“Our institution is one that is keenly aware of its history and heritage,” says St. Norbert College president Tom Kunkel. “Father Burke was such a huge part of SNC for so long that to find this kind of personal artifact feels like a real gift to us, his descendants. Plus, it’s simply a beautiful piece of furniture. So I feel fortunate that we’ve been able to bring it back to life and provide the campus an opportunity to reconnect with this charismatic figure in our history.” 

May 7, 2013