Lawrence’s Teakroom at risk as Downer close

Maija Anstine

Several members of the Lawrence faculty and staff have gathered together to ensure that the Teakwood Room of Downer Commons is not lost when the building is closed next year. The group is attempting to preserve the room, which is a rarity due to its history and its nature as an intact work of art.
The group is comprised of Executive Director of Alumni Relations Jan Quinlan, Professor of Art History Carol Lawton, Catering Director Julia Sati, Director of Exhibits and Instructor in Art History Frank Lewis, Archivist and Assistant Professor Julia Stringfellow, Assistant Director of Donor Relations Erin Chudacoff and Director of Facility Services Dan Meyer.
The room was commissioned by Alice Chapman, who was impressed by an exhibit of carved teakwood at the World Fair in Chicago in 1892. She called on Hudson River School painter and architect Lockwood de Forest to make a room out of the wood.
Upon Chapman’s death in the 1930s, her will stipulated that the room be given to Milwaukee-Downer College, and when the school merged with Lawrence in 1964, the room was deconstructed and reinstalled in Jason Downer Commons four years later.
The room contains valuable furnishings, including chandeliers, carved teakwood ceiling and walls, and a painting of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and the arts. It is the only room in existence with both carvings and furnishings by de Forest.
The room “is a symbol of how much Lawrence cherishes their legacy,” and is seen as “not only a wonderful piece of art, but also a point of pride,” said Quinlan, who founded the group in April.
Because of its age and the fact that it’s been in the same spot for 41 years, another deconstruction and move could severely damage the room. However, if the room remains in its current place its contents may be at risk when Downer closes.
Stringfellow noted the sensitivity of both the furnishings and the teakwood, explaining how regulated temperature and humidity levels are necessary for preservation. If Downer is left completely abandoned, utilities such as air conditioning and heat would be turned off.
“The room needs to be preserved so that it can be used for years and years in the future,” said Stringfellow. “I can’t imagine Lawrence without it. … It is such an important part of the Lawrence community.”
“No one wants to hurt the room,” said Quinlan. “We’re confident we’ll find a good solution.”
Quinlan holds the interests of Milwaukee-Downer alumnae at heart, noting that the remaining 1,500 alumnae have “a great emotional tie” to the room that they gave Lawrence over 40 years ago.
“It’s a room we need to be very careful about preserving, but we’re determined that nothing adverse should happen,” added Quinlan.