Pemberton Hall’s ‘magical doors’ being restored

Craftsman Shay Gallo prepares to hang one of two authentic wood doors he’s restored at Pemberton Hall. The heart pine, double doors were made in 1741 and are the only two original entrance doors in the historic home near Salisbury.

The bottom of the wooden doors were rotting. It would have been far cheaper to get new doors then to repair the damage. After all, a door’s a door, right?. 

Not so, said Pat Taylor, Chairwoman of the Pemberton Hall Foundation Board. She led the effort to have two entrance doors on the west side of Pemberton Hall, near Salisbury, restored.

“The bottom of the doors were so rotten,” Taylor recalled, “that when I closed them the bottom parts would drop out. I knew we had to do something, but I was hoping so much that would could restore, not replace them.”

After all, these are no ordinary doors.

They embody a living aura of the special history of the house.

Sitting in the Great Room of the brick house, built in 1741 by Isaac Handy, Taylor looked at one of the two panels being rehung by Shay Gallo after weeks of restoration.

Gallo, of Shay Gallo Construction of Bishopville, builder and carpenter, who worked with Larry and Shaun Widgeon on the restoration of Radcliffe House, an 18th-century landmark near Assateague, took the doors to his shop in spring 2019. He finished them in late fall.

Less than 15 percent of the doors had to be rebuilt, mostly at the bottom where rain and snow deteriorated them over the decades.

The panels were split and needed to be glued, and that meant disassembling the doors. Gallo discovered that earlier repairs, perhaps made in the 1960s, had been done with red cedar, and the cedar repairs were the ones that had rotted.

While this is the first set of period doors Gallo has restored, he said he can appreciate the skills of the original carpenters in building them. 

“These panels are very heavy and are pegged, meaning there are two door styles in one, a front and a back,” he said. Each of the two-door, 1-inch-thick panels measure 7 feet, 7 inches in height, and 22-inches in width. That makes for a very generous 44-inch opening. It also makes for very heavy doors that exude authenticity and quality. 

“These are ‘magical’ doors,” Taylor mused, “because they are an authentic, direct link to the thousands of people who have passed by them over the past two-plus centuries. They were already ‘getting old’ before there was a United States of America,” she said.

The rich, the poor, free and enslaved, young and old have passed over the threshold.

It is a particularly meaningful moment for Taylor. “Samuel Johnson was my ancestor, and he lived across the field. He was Isaac Handy’s neighbor, and Isaac witnessed his will,” she said. “So I know my ancestors walked on this original heart pine floor and came through these very doors. It always gives me a rush of excitement when I consider that, after 280 years, I’m in the same house he visited.”

Handy is credited, through his commercial enterprises, with having helped establish the town of Salisbury.

Saving the original fabric of the house is important. It’s the original “feel of the house” she said, that she wants to convey to visitors here. The authentic doors, the paneling, floors, beautiful fireplace, all combine to set the tone for a trip back in time.

“We try to give them authentic food of the 18th century, with music that would have been played here. We want them to experience a house with no electricity, running water, just as the early occupants did.”

Nice as reproductions are, Taylor, Wilson and others want to impart authenticity. There’s no substitute.

“So many ‘soldiers’ have worked gallantly over the years to protect the integrity of this house, so I wanted to make sure the doors stayed authentic and were repaired and restored to match the original woodwork.”

In the subdued sunlight that brought warmth and soft shadows to the one-room chamber, she could almost see Handy, a merchant and planter, opening the doors for the first time.

Sitting in front of the huge fireplace, Handy, his family and friends would have discussed the challenges of their day, the rift with Great Britain, tobacco prices, and perils of shipping between his wharf on the Wicomico River and England.

Pat Taylor, chairwoman of the Pemberton Hall Foundation, and her sister, Joan Matyiko, also on the board, and dressed in 18th-century-style costumes, talk on the steps of Pemberton Hall. Behind them are the recently restored, original 1741 entry doors to the historic home.

Listening were the doors made of heart pine, wood that was probably a century old when it was cut and milled prior to 1741. Embedded somewhere within the fibers, trapped forever, the voices of the past remain.

No, throwing away these two doors was not an option.

The doors, on the west side of the house, were the back entryway in the 18th-century house. An identical twin set of doors, across the room and on the east side of the house, faces the Wicomico River, the marine thoroughfare in Handy’s day. They are reproductions, Taylor said, which made preserving the authentic doors on the western side so important.

The restored back doors have a peculiar mystery. There is no evidence of period knobs, or locks, on the two panels. A single “keeper bar,” that can be placed horizontally across the midsection, is all that keeps them closed and secured. Hardware to secure the door tops to the jam near ceiling, and to the floor, are period reproductions.

“Bill Wilson, former president of the Pemberton Hall Foundation Board, with 30-plus years of service, told me that the hinges are original, put on in 1741,” Taylor related.

When Gallo restored the double entryway doors, and revealed the wood beneath layers of paint, there were no “ghosts” or “shadows” left by knobs or locks. The bare wood held no surprises, there were no initials carved in the wood or artistic embellishments.

He believes there was some kind of latch or pull which allowed the doors to be opened and closed, but was unable to determine particulars.

To “set the doors,” Gallo used handmade reproductions nails, which he cut to match the thickness of the wood.

 As he worked to hang the panels, Gallo used an “airbag” between the door bottoms and sill, a convenient modern method to steady and secure them as he worked. The craftsman noted the radical difference between the original carpenters working with numerous shims to hold the door in place, and with a simple foot pump is performs the same task with considerably less effort. 

Pemberton Hall remains the only authentic 18th-century home in Wicomico County open to the public on a regular basis. Donations are needed to pay for the restoration of the doors and can be sent to Pemberton Hall Foundation, 6272 Westbury Drive, Salisbury, MD., and by accessing the organization’s website, pembertonhallfoundation.com.

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