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Silk Flowers Preserve History in Older Houses : DECORATING

July 30, 1994|JENE STONESIFER | TIMES-POST NEWS SERVICE

The fresh-flower arrangements that once adorned historic properties across the country have all but disappeared for reasons of authenticity and practicality.

In their place, bouquets of silk flowers are brightening the carefully preserved interiors and adding a historical grace note to the houses.

Representatives of historic houses say the change has been prompted by problems with insects on the live arrangements, petal and pollen droppings that can damage antique finishes and a concern that live flowers were not being chosen with an eye to historical accuracy. In some cases, dried-flower arrangements have been replaced with silk varieties. Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, Va., is the most recent historic house to join this trend.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which oversees 17 historic-house museums nationwide, has been advising against the use of fresh flowers for two years, said Barbara Martin, senior curator.

"Flowers and their pollens are acidic," Martin said. "They can damage furniture finishes. If put into period vases, they can corrode the inside. Sometimes, people can get a little overzealous in watering them, and you can end up with water damage on the furniture. You just need to exercise some care when using flowers."

If the property director and curators decide to have flowers, they are asked to weigh the risks and benefits carefully, Martin said.

At Woodlawn Plantation, a brick Georgian mansion built in 1800 for Nelly Custis, George Washington's adopted daughter, dried floral arrangements have been replaced in recent weeks by silk bouquets done up in historically documented 18th-Century style.

The flowers for the arrangements at Woodlawn, like those being added to most historic houses, have been carefully researched and commissioned.

"Those featured were documented in some way, either from a period source or a sight reference such as a diary or a letter," said Woodlawn curator Heather Palmer.

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