In the late 1970s, the Syrian capital of Damascus was experiencing a building boom. In the al-Bahsa quarter, for instance, a clutch of old houses were demolished to make way for a new roadway. Among the homes: an 18th century courtyard house with at least one elaborate reception room crafted from hand-painted wood panels and inlaid stone.
Before the house was destroyed, a Lebanese dealer bought the contents of the room — floors, fountain and wood panels — and for roughly three decades, warehoused them in Beirut, where they somehow managed to survive the Lebanese Civil War.
That room is now part of the permanent collection at the L.A. County Museum of Art. The museum acquired the room in spring 2014 and it is in the process of giving its myriad parts some needed conservation treatment before it makes its museum debut at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, early next year.
For the record
April 1, 8:34 a.m.: A previous version of this post said the room was acquired in 2012. It was acquired in 2014.
Conservators are removing grime and stabilizing pieces — which, quite miraculously, were never altered after being fabricated some time in the 1760s.
"We're still removing surface dirt from the wood to reveal a dusty rose paint," says Linda Komaroff, who heads up the Art of the Middle East Department at LACMA. "The flowers underneath would have been quite bright. It's all very 1960s looking. But they didn't have artificial light, so this all would have been illuminated with natural light."
Komaroff was instrumental in getting the museum to acquire this period room after she saw pictures of it in 2011. For her, it was not only about collecting an important historical artifact. But, as she wrote in a blog post from 2012, it was also about preserving "a small part of the cultural history of one of the world’s oldest, continuously occupied cities" at a time when Syria is racked by a conflict that is destroying its architectural heritage.
The room, she says, was likely one of several reception chambers typical of well-to-do homes of the era (one that likely belonged to a successful merchant). And it would have served as a place of hospitality, where guests would have been greeted with food and refreshments.
"It would have been a relaxing area where you would have been served water and fruits," explains Komaroff. "In the cornices, you see designs for fruits and sweets and bowls and of baklava. The pattern also has a chunk of watermelon with a knife in it."
Guests would have arrived into the space through a courtyard and a vaulted archway. "It's very Southern California in terms of the indoor/outdoor design," she says.
Incredibly, many of the room's original details survive: the carved wood shutters with their elaborate geometric patterns, the metal door knockers, the inlaid marble floor, with its circular and triangular design, and the graceful stone fountain, flanked by a pair of columns, that would have welcomed new arrivals with the sound of gurgling water.
Some of the walls also contain fragments of a 14th century Arabic poem celebrating the birth of the prophet Muhammad.
"For that, they used some metallic glazes," explains Komaroff, "so it would have been rather shiny."
LACMA is working on conservation of the pieces (with financial assistance from the King Abdulaziz Center). They are also building an armature on which the room can reside once it is fully installed.
Unfortunately, anyone who wants to see the Damascus room will have to wait until 2016 — and they'll have to travel to Dhahran to do so. LACMA does not have any space in its permanent collection galleries for a room of this size and scale. (It is 15 feet by 20 feet and requires 20 foot ceilings to display.) So, until the museum has a new building, this incredible piece of interior design will not be put on permanent display.
This is a bummer, since LACMA is one of the few American institutions to have a complete period room from that region and era. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Shangrila Center for Islamic Art and Cultures in Hawaii are among the others.
Last week, architect Peter Zumthor and LACMA director Michael Govan released renderings of the latest plan for the new LACMA building. The interiors of the building still remain a bit of a mystery. But here's hoping there will be a corner for an 18th century room from Damascus.
"It's a very luxurious, warm space," says museum conservator John Hirx, who is working on treating the pieces. "This is a place where you'd sit down, get a cup of coffee and discuss the Ottoman Empire."
For more on the Damascus room, check out Komaroff's recent post about the conservation work on LACMA's blog, Unframed. Likewise, the Met has a short video that shows conservation efforts on its own 18th century room.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.