Restorative Power

After Katrina, McConnell’s Furniture Refinishers Inc. went on a personal mission to help fix New Orleans, one antique at a time.

About a month after the levees broke and the floodwalls collapsed in 2005, the city allowed residents in flooded areas to come home, survey the damage, save what they could and leave. It was a weekend of heartache, shock and awe for many of the 160,000 families whose homes were damaged or destroyed. My husband, Philip, and I were among those who returned.

As we walked through our home of 30 years, we found room after room filled with antiques that were upside-down or broken. Reproduction pieces, even those made by some of the finest names in the business, were splintered messes. Holding our ruined belongings, we began the sad walk from our home to an 8-foot-tall (and growing) FEMA pile in front of our house. Could we save any? Was it worth it? Who could take on this impossible task?

Like many of those who flooded, I became a maniac. My mantra was: Every piece I save is one fewer thing Katrina took from me. I refused to become that storm’s victim. Like Scarlett O’Hara before me, I felt that this home and its stuff were mine — and no wind, water or levee failure would take them away. After that “aha! moment,” I began seeking the best preservationists in the business to give me back my home.

The first call was to Terry McConnell of McConnell’s Furniture Refinishers Inc. in the Baton Rouge area. Terry and her husband, James, are second-generation antiques preservationists. James began working in his parents’ shop at age 5, pulling tacks from upholstery. Today the McConnells restore antiques for some of the finest stores and collectors in the country. They’ve also restored antiques for four presidential convention suites (George H.W. Bush, twice; Bob Dole; and George W. Bush). I knew as we loaded 41 pieces onto their 18-wheeler that day that somehow my antiques would survive and thrive in their care.

“After Katrina, James and I were running on pure emotion,” Terry says. “We watched what was going on in New Orleans and said, ‘How can we help these people?’ If we’d thought about what we were getting into, we might not have taken on so much!”

The McConnells, along with their son Brent, rented a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Baton Rouge; bought a truck; and, in the end, picked up more than 1,000 flood-damaged, splintered and molded antiques. Their passion for antiques had become a mission.

Terry, James and their small team began the arduous task of rebuilding and restoring each piece and bringing it back better than before. The Katrina pieces were, undoubtedly, the biggest challenges of their professional careers. Antiques were stained from the muddy, brackish waters that stayed in many homes for weeks. Joints had swollen; marquetry had been lifted up; intricate details had fallen off; screws had rusted or become imbedded in the soggy wood.

As they dissected each antique, they found that many times their most daunting challenge was undoing the damage created by previous restorations. For example, in a set of antique French dining room chairs, the McConnells found that a previous restorer used 6-inch screws to hold the backs together. Terry and James rebuilt each chair correctly and ultimately brought them all back to life.

“Each piece we work with is different and presents a new set of obstacles,” she says. “No two pieces are alike. But restoring antiques is like reading history. Each piece tells a story that unfolds as we go along. The job becomes very personal to me. We are very hands-on and know each piece, every inch.”

Terry and James admit to a division of labor in the business. Terry is the detail person who patiently applies and repairs inlay, individually casts molds for the ormolu (the brass or gilded details on many fine pieces) and has a special love for antique frame restoration and gold leaf work. James is the finish expert and is an ace with French waxes, painted pieces, glazes and shellacs. Together, along with Brent and the small team whom they mentor closely (which now includes their son Matt, as well), they form an unbeatable combination.

The McConnells now work out of an even larger warehouse outside of Baker. They are still restoring Katrina-damaged pieces, including some of ours. They have a moratorium on new clients and have a six-month wait for any pieces they accept.

But the wait is worth it. Today, when Philip and I see our restored furniture, we see pieces that have literally come back from the dead, more beautiful and authentic-looking than before. They bear no trace of the ugly past. They are beginning again — and in many ways, so are we.

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