Pamela Patton of Montgomery Avenue spoke to Rocky Hill Borough Council on June 17 about preserving a Civil War era American flag and an old school bell from 1884. The artifacts are currently on display in the borough hall. See related article.
The bell reads “Rocky Hill Public School, January 1, 1884.” The bell once announced the start and end of the school day from the bell tower of the town’s first school.
Patton has significant career experience in museum work and artifacts, and currently works at Princeton University as a researcher and administrator in the Index of Medieval Art. Patton earned her Ph.D from Boston University in 1994.
She moved to Rocky Hill four years ago after teaching in Dallas at Southern Methodist University. At SMU she was a museum curator and a professor in the history department.
“I am used to looking at old stuff like the flag and bell and I have thoughts on the care they need and some places that we could go for the funding to plan here. We have two interesting objects that are valuable historically and monetarily,” she said.
The Van Harlingen Historical Society (VHHS) donated the 36-star flag (circa 1860) to Rocky Hill in 2012. Photo: Former VHHS VP Don Matthews of Montgomery; former VHHS president Anne Woolley; with former Rocky Hill mayor Ed Zimmerman and Rocky Hill Clerk Rebecca Newman.
Patton suggested inviting her local friend and Princeton University graduate Jean-François de Laperouse to take a look at the flag. He serves an alternate member on the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission and has decades of experience as a curator at the Met Museum.
Patton told borough council that something needs to be done before the items are further diminished due to neglect, time, and elements.
The bell sits on the floor of the borough council meeting room, surrounded by several chairs that could push up against it. The bell is in fairly good condition. Patton suggested that the bell needs just a bit of waxing and “a bit of TLC, as long as it remains indoors.” She said the bell should be raised up onto a pedestal. “On the floor, not only can no one see it, but it is going to get dinged and scratched,” said Patton.
She quoted a potential and long-term sum of $2,000 if every preservation and maintenance effort, including a new pedestal, is involved for the bell.
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The flag, which is protected better with its framed glass display, gets ultraviolet light from the room’s fluorescent white lights. Also, the lack of consistent air conditioning on the second floor of borough hall pose threats the flag. Council discussed a month earlier whether the cloth object would have better longevity if it was laid flat on a glass-enclosed display table, as some historic books are.
“The flag is surprisingly rare, and the more I looked into it, the more exciting it is that Rocky Hill has this,” Patton said. “But it’s also extremely fragile. It is probably made by cotton or linen and it’s very easily damaged by light and changes in temperature or humidity. Gravity of hanging up pulls the flag against glass, putting pressure on the threads. UV light coming from fluorescents not only weaken the flag’s cloth fibers but fades Old Glory’s color. The room’s humidity issue is likely to cause all types of problems, including mold. Flags like this one in a museum setting are so carefully protected that they are not even displayed on a regular basis. If they are it would usually lay flat and in glass, covered often and only uncovered to look at. There would not be light on it all the time. I am a little afraid that if this flag stays where it is it would fall to pieces in a couple more years. This flag is probably worth good money and therefore investing a little bit of care in,” Patton said.
As for its cost value, Patton says flags predating the Civil War can sell between $3,500 and $35,000 with an average closest to $20,000.
Patton suggested immediate options such as contacting de LaPerouse and applying for grants soon, especially through John Marshall, a contact in Congressman Tom Malinowski’s office.
She says he is proactive in helping the Borough’s subcommittee find grants. “This is something I think that we could get Malinowski’s office behind and they could probably help us on funding sources. We can probably find money to do the things that we need to do, but we need direction from Council to know what those efforts are,” she said. She provided the mayor and Council with an executive summary report of “most expensive to least expensive options” to preserve the safety of these rare objects.
Councilwoman Connie Hallman asked if it was a good idea to contact the New Jersey State Museum, and Patton said one smart option is for Rocky Hill to retain ownership of the flag, which may date to the 1850s (pre-Civil War) American flag but see if a museum could take it on a long-term loan to ensure it is conserved laying flat and out of the room, less so for display. Council discussed whether the Mary Jacobs Library would be able to store the flag.
“That might entail some conservation expenses on our part if we were to maintain control of it -- if the Borough donated the flag outright then it would be the museum’s to maintain. If we wanted to put it on a long-term loan then we’d need to pay for care in some ways, but another setting is an ideal home for the flag,” Patton said.
Another idea, which she considers good from the curatorial point of view, is replacing the current 170-year old flag with a high quality photo of it and raising the iron bell up on a pedestal in the room to make a “small installation” at Borough Hall. Patton told Council it would be a nice display to honor the historic objects the Borough has.
A first step was determined to have a conservation assessment done by a professional in the field, perhaps a friend of Patton’s, because to date the only opinions on the flag have been on the basis of photos.
Council President Billy Dawson said he was enthused to hear such credible information about the flag, as it is a great piece of Rocky Hill history. Mayor Bob Uhrik asked about how she assessed the value, monetarily or intrinsic, and Patton said the process and valuation is the same as some one insuring their family art or old heirlooms.
“A thought of ‘would I replace grandma’s pearls? Maybe not but I won’t not insure them. It depends on the market; really there is no value to anything until someone offers to pay for it. I have seen offers for flags this age and rendition up in the five figures so Council should note that part of the equation, and also how deterioration impacts the value,” she explained.■