The Old Schwamb Mill: A Framework for Preservation

© Amanda Quinby

Recently, I was asked to restore a set of four gilt oval frames for a group of 19th century family portraits on pine panels. Three of the frames were identical in design and were probably original to the paintings. The fourth was somewhat different though still a high quality gilt frame and obviously a well intentioned effort by some turn of the century relative to maintain a coherent look to the collection. It would be a challenging project as the frames were in varying states of disrepair but what proved to be the most challenging was the frame that didn’t exist. When I began to match the variously sized panels to their respective frames I realized that there were only four frames for a five panel collection of portraits. The search was then on for a source of custom sized, solid wood oval frames. Finally, after many false leads, a colleague at the North Carolina Museum of Art suggested I contact the Old Schwamb Mill in Arlington, Massachusetts. Not only did my search end there but I found a fascinating historical site dating back to the colonial era.

Around 1650 settlers in Arlington, Massachusetts founded a grist mill on what would, appropriately, come to be called Mill Brook. In the course of the next two hundred years the site was variously used for milling flour, lumber and spices. In 1864 a woodworker by the name of Charles Schwamb, together with fellow German immigrant and millwright, John Frederick Bitzer, converted the mill into a picture frame workshop specializing in high quality oval frames.

Probably what drove the men’s decision was the reality that to compete in the arena of traditional furniture woodworking, in the competitive Boston area, was a challenge and a risky business proposition, at best. Then, as now, New England teemed with talented craftsmen. But, perhaps more importantly, by the mid 19th century photography had become an international rage and the public’s passion for photographic portraiture was practically insatiable. By offering the oval portrait frames that were the fashion of the day the Schwamb workshop filled an empty niche in the new photography market. The business flourished and Schwamb frames, known for their quality design and craftsmanship, were soon sought after by major art museums, galleries, and artists throughout the United States and Canada. Today they are found in the White House, Buckingham Palace, and the Vatican.

Post World War II changes in economics and aesthetics, however, conspired to threaten the continued existence of the Mill. The advent of inexpensive plastics, prefabricated moldings and lower priced imports made it difficult for the Schwambs to compete. Meanwhile, the industrial look – characterized, for example, by the currently ubiquitous metal frame – gained wide favor at the expense of the natural and the hand-crafted. By 1969, after five generations in the business, the Schwamb family began to make plans to close the Mill. Its demolition seemed imminent.

In response, a small group of Arlington citizens formed the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust. In purchasing the workshop complex from the Schwamb family, the Trust managed to save the Mill. And, while it is now listed in both the National and Massachusetts Registers of Historic Places, it has by no means become a static museum. The Old Schwamb Mill continues as a functioning workshop at what is now the longest continuously operating mill site in the western hemisphere.

Interest in the Mill can operate on several levels. As a framer, I originally came to the Mill in an effort to the find the best frame for my project. There is no doubt I found that. I arrived on a January morning with template in one hand, restored frame in the other. David Graf, craftsman at the Mill for the past seven years, copied the profile from the restored frame. Working from the template I had made from the panel to be framed, he provided me with a basswood oval body I could then take back to my studio where I ornamented, gilded, and antiqued the frame to match its companions.

What I found equally fascinating is that David completed my project, as he does all the Mill’s orders, on what is essentially the same equipment used by the Schwamb craftsmen a century and a half ago. The original water wheel used to power the machinery was updated to a steam engine in 1872 and further supplemented by a water turbine system in 1888. The huge drive shaft can still be found in the basement of the Mill.  Electricity did not come to the Mill until 1954. Each of these power sources was used to run the same shaft and pulley system that remains in place today. The leather belted assembly flaps overhead as each of the saws, jointers and lathes are successively powered up in the course of a frame’s construction. While the machinery at the Mill may appear quaint, much of it has yet to be improved upon and serves, in fact, as a testament to the genius of the Industrial Age. Most important of these machines is probably the elliptical face plate lathe, an intriguing invention which allows for the turning of oval forms with the same ease as circular ones. It is the elliptical lathe that gives the Mill its advantage over production shops and allows for the custom work required by today’s conservators and collectors. (More detailed information on these lathes can be found in the May/June 1996 issue of Fine Woodworking magazine or, of course, by visiting the Mill.)

Finally, as an historical site, the Mill is a living example of the strength of our industrial past and of our continued evolution. The building itself has been restored from the asphalt- shingled structure to which it had deteriorated by the early sixties. The rough interior has been preserved as the workshop it has always been. The plank floors creak, the tools and work tables display the authentic patina brought about by decades of use. That it is a museum, open to the public and supported by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and, to a greater extent, by contributors to the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, bodes well for the Mill’s future. That it continues to produce the same quality frames it always has is reassuring to the conservator and perhaps a reminder of the practical and pragmatic potential of many preservation projects.

The Old Schwamb Mill is located at 17 Mill Lane in Arlington, Massachusetts. It is open Tuesdays from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Call (781) 643-0554 for more information or check them out online: