“We found the actual doorbell where it rang in the bookcase,” said Brady Kress, president and CEO of Dayton History. “What’s interesting about it is Orville was working on the doorbell the last day he spent here in the house in 1948.”
Orville Wright had a second heart attack on Jan. 27, 1948. Witnesses that day said Orville was racing up and down steps between his basement workshop and first floor while fixing the doorbell. He died three days later at age 76.
“This is something that had been covered up by books for years and years and is going to help us now with the interpretive story,” Kress said.
Workers are pulling wall-to-wall carpet out of the home built for the Wright brothers and moving original furniture back to where Orville Wright left it.
Dayton History acquired Hawthorn Hill last summer from the Dayton Foundation and Wright Family Foundation and has begun implementing a restoration plan outlined in a 350-page Historic Furnishings Report by the National Park Service.
“The first phase is to return Hawthorn Hill, a National Historic Landmark, back as close as we can get it to look like when Orville Wright left here the last time in 1948,” said Brady Kress, president and CEO of Dayton History. Orville Wright died that year.
Kress said the first phase will be done in time for an event marking the 100th anniversary of the day Orville, his sister Katharine, and their father Milton, moved into the home on April 28, 1914. While the house was designed to accommodate both brothers famous for inventing powered flight, Wilbur died in 1912 before the house was completed.
Kress said it’s important modern-day visitors see Hawthorn Hill as Orville Wright’s home, not as its intervening use by National Cash Register as a guest house from 1948-2006. While NCR was a good caretaker for the home, Kress said, major remodeling projects in 1949, 1960 and 1989-90 made the company’s overnight guests more comfortable but changed the interior dramatically.
“We could certainly give an architectural tour and talk about some of the original pieces, but what it really came down to it — especially up on the second floor — our guests were seeing more of an NCR guest house and not as much of Orville Wright’s home. We want to give people an authentic experience when they’re here,” Kress said. “So when our guests come through and tour and want to know what Orville Wright was like and where he lived and how he lived, they now will be able to get a good sense of the man.”
Many of the post-1948 additions to the Georgian-style mansion are being removed. Workers on Tuesday ripped up more second-floor carpet to reveal the hardwood floors the Wright family walked. Workers haven’t found any major damage to the white oak floorboards.
“It was a gamble, when we started pulling up the carpet we weren’t sure what we were going to find,” Kress said. “We have been lucky.”
Kress said Dayton History workers have rearranged more than 100 pieces of furniture in the house and brought in another 40 from storage. Another three dozen pieces are still in storage awaiting better weather for a move. He said one of the most significant pieces returned to the mansion is Orville’s 1916 Berkey & Gay dresser.
“It has been missing from its original location for 75 years. When we placed it, it was just amazing,” Kress said. “This is the dresser and the mirror that Orville Wright looked into every morning when he woke up.”
Katharine Wright’s writing desk and a couch in the entry hall passage were also returned to historic locations. At the April event, Bishop Wright’s favorite reading chair will be ceremonially carried into Hawthorn Hill.
Kress said Dayton History is in possession of 72 percent of the original furnishings, not including small decorative arts, wall and floor coverings, or items original to non-formal rooms such as the basement and servant’s quarters.
After NCR purchased the home shortly after Orville’s death, the interior rooms were meticulously photographed at the direction of Col. Edward Deeds, the company’s chairman at the time and Orville’s friend. The photographs have proved invaluable in pinpointing where certain pieces, like the dresser, were sitting in 1948 when Orville died.
“That’s the most concrete evidence we have of what the house looked like,” Kress said.
Since the photos are in black and white and taken after Orville had spent 34 years in the house, it’s more difficult to determine how the interior may have evolved during that time.
“As we peel back the layers of wallpaper and paint colors we have to weigh that with what’s in the written record, the photographic record, and what we’re finding now, the physical record,” Kress said.
Future project phases will include a total restoration of each room to incorporate what researchers uncover about period paint colors, wood treatments, wall coverings and lighting fixtures, Kress said. The heating and cooling and electrical systems may be updated, he said.
The current work will not affect the four weekly public tours of the home, Kress said.
“Actually, I think it’s going to enhance the tours. People love to see work in progress and they love to see behind the scenes,” Kress said. “Every piece of furniture, everything that we’re doing to the house is just going to add more authenticity to their experience here in Orville’s home.”