New-York Historical’s favorite set of wheels is back in the Museum. The Beekman Family Coach, a treasured part of our collection since 1911, has been undergoing a meticulous restoration at the B.R. Howard Conservation Studio in Pennsylvania since the fall of 2020 thanks to a Federal Save America’s Treasures grant. After a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the coach is back home and on view in the Smith Gallery through March 2022. Even better: Conservator Brian Howard and his team will be doing some final touches on the coach live in the Museum on July 9, 10, 11, 23, 24, and 25 so visitors can get an inside look at what goes into the conservation process.
The restoration is just the latest twist in the centuries-long story of the coach. Made around 1770, it’s one of only three surviving intact carriages from colonial America. James Beekman, the prominent and wealthy New York merchant, bought the coach in 1771—his account book records the purchase for £138, and there’s a notation that it was taken off a ship from England, where it was likely manufactured. From the very beginning, the vehicle was meant to be a luxurious one, used on special occasions like balls, banquets, or other events that required a grand arrival.
We also know that Beekman paid to have his family coat of arms painted on the doors. Indeed, the coach was spruced up multiple times over its first two decades—it was repainted different colors, and flowers, scrolls, and mica powder moldings were added. A 2003 paint analysis revealed five different layers of paint: first yellow, then white, then orange, then yellow again, and finally the celadon green of its current incarnation. “It’s an artifact of conspicuous consumption,” says Curator Debra Schmidt Bach, who supervised the conservation. “Clearly, the Beekman family used the coach and wanted to keep it fresh and in fashion.”
It’s remarkable that the coach even survived its early years and the Revolutionary War. The Beekmans were also slaveholders and a major challenge of research into the coach’s past is getting some hint of the life, work, and skills of the enslaved men who likely drove the coach, tended to the horses, and took care of the maintenance and aesthetic upgrades.
The coach remained with the Beekman family until 1911, when New-York Historical acquired it from descendant Gerard Beekman. It has been on view in the Museum many times in the decades since then, most recently in 2010. (When it’s not on view, it’s kept in a special offsite storage facility.) The Coach has never before undergone an extensive restoration though. Sometime in the mid-20th century, a thick layer of varnish was applied to the exterior, which, over the years, took on a dirty, yellow-ish color. A key issue for the conservators was coming up with a compound that would remove the varnish, while preserving the five layers of historical paint underneath it. But once they were able to crack that problem, they were able to make the coach gleam again. “We are so grateful for the support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services for making this Federal Save America’s Treasures grant possible,” says Schmidt Bach. “And we are excited to complete this project—years in the making—and to preserve this rare, early New York artifact for future generations to study and enjoy.”
Traveling in Style: A Coach Restored will be on view in the Museum starting July 2 through March 2022.
Top image: Detail of Mount Pleasant (Beekman Mansion), New York City. ca. 1874. Abram Hosier. Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper. Gift of the Beekman Family Association
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor