This article was originally published in the November/December 1998 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online November/December 1998

History in a New Light: The House of the Seven Gables Lighting Retrofit

by Sandy Cataldo


Nathaniel Hawthorne probably didn't have a full-house lighting retrofit in mind when he wrote this about the House of the Seven Gables in 1851: the many lattices, with their small, diamond-shaped panes, admitted the sunlight into hall and chamber, while, nevertheless, the second story, projecting far over the base, and itself retiring beneath the third, threw a shadowy and thoughtful gloom into the lower rooms. But now, almost 150 years later, the Gables has been carefully brightened up.

The dining room was on the dark side and some detail was lost--portraits were not lit well, nor was the china on the table (top). The lighting designer replaced the large fixtures with smaller ones from Lightolier and used MR16 lamps to brighten things up (above).
Table 1. Retrofit Savings
Room Retrofits kW Difference
Dining room Replaced 6 existing reflector-style track lights and their 75W reflector bulbs with low-voltage, reflector spot, and floodlights using minireflector MR16 halogen bulbs *Saved about 95 kWh/month
Added 5 new monopoint floor fixtures with PAR30 (reflector-style) 75W halogen bulbs *Added about 100 kWh/month
Added ministrip low-voltage 5W halogen light in fireplace *Added about 1 kWh/month
Kitchen Removed ex existing 3 track lights and their 75W incandescent bulbs *Saved about 60 kWh/month
Parlor Replaced existing 15 track lights and incandescent reflector bulbs (8 75W and 7 150W) with new track lights using PAR20 halogen floodlight bulbs and PAR30 halogen spotlight bulbs (8 50W and 7 75W) on ceiling beam *Saved almost 200 kWh/month
Added ministrip low-voltage 5W halogen light in fireplace *Added about 1 kWh/month
Added ministrip low-voltage 5W halogen lights (2 fixtures) in china cabinet *Added about 2 kWh/month
Phoebe's room Replaced existing 14 track lights and incandescent reflector bulbs (7 75W and 7 150W) with new track lights using PAR20 halogen floodlight bulbs and PAR30 halogen spotlight bulbs (7 50W and 7 75W) on ceiling beam *Saved about 190 kWh/month
Added ministrip low-voltage 5W halogen light in fireplace *Added about 1 kWh/month
The Garret (attic) Replaced existing 5 track lights and 75W bulbs with 12 new track lights using PAR30 75W halogen spotlight bulbs under attic beams throughout *Added about 142 kWh/month
The Cent Shop (a small room near the street) Added 2 new track lights using PAR20 (50W) halogen spotlight bulbs above cabinetry *Added 27 kWh/month
Added 1 decorative light using 100W clear incandescent bulb *Added 27 kWh/month
The secret stairs Added 1 vapor tight box-mounted jelly jar fixture under open stair treads using a 75W quartz bulb *Added about 20 kWh/month
Total kW difference: 115 kWh/month saved
*Assumes lights are turned on for 9 hours per day.
Track lighting throughout the house was used to bring attention to important items. The lights in the dining room are Lightolier spot track fixtures with PAR30 Capsylite spotlights highlighting certain artifacts (left). The fixtures in smaller rooms, such as Phoebe's room, are smaller (right).
Lights and fixtures were placed as inconspicuously as possible. They were placed behind or above ceiling beams in the parlor (left), in the garrett (top right), and in the Cent Shop (lower right)

The fireplace in the parlor has a cast iron fireback with ornate detailing that was previously hidden in gloom (top). Starline halogen display lamps now reveal the fireback for all to see (above).
The kitchen corner display cabinet features quartz strip lighting hidden along the inside edges of the shelving frame.
The open hearth in the kitchen (top left) has some unique utensils that deserved more attention. New 50W PAR20 halogen lamps highlight these artifacts and give the fireplace more warmth (above and top right).
How many historic preservationists does it take to change a light bulb? Well, a few might consider it, but most won't change a thing. Preservation is the key word here. So when the caretakers of the famed House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, considered retrofitting the building's lighting fixtures for added efficiency and visibility, they hesitated. The existing lighting fixtures and standard incandescent bulbs just didn't do enough to accent the aging timbers, the collections of pewter and porcelain, and the artifacts of maritime and social history. At the same time, the caretakers weren't sure if modern lighting equipment could be blended into the decor of the home without harming its authentic colonial character and detracting from the history it was illuminating. With the help of some experts, though, they found a way to make it work.

Perched on a rise overlooking Salem harbor, this dark wooden house with its multipeaked roof has been a working museum for 88 years, showcasing one of America's most important examples of early colonial architecture. Together with five other early structures on the grounds, the Gables houses an impressive collection of artifacts and art spanning three centuries. The house was nearly 200 years old when Nathaniel Hawthorne drew inspiration from it and the history of witchcraft hysteria in Salem for his brooding novel, The House of the Seven Gables. Today, the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association maintains the house and uses proceeds from the touring public to support charitable work on behalf of children and their families in the community.

The Gables' caretakers decided that, before the house was to celebrate its 330th birthday this year, it needed a new look. Nearly every lighting fixture and lamp--52 of them in all--would be replaced with modern technology. Twenty-two more would be added.

Dim Beacons to the Past Close to 200,000 visitors tour the Gables every year, but they don't come to see the latest technology in efficient lighting. Instead, the highlights of the guided tours are the artifacts on display throughout the Gables, as well as the architectural elements reflecting the two centuries during which the house was built and expanded. Early colonial life is discussed as visitors are taken through narrow corridors, past 200-year-old portraits and hand-turned furniture, through mazes of connected rooms and sleeping chambers, into the keeping room (the kitchen), and up the secret staircase.

Lighting experts at Osram Sylvania, one of the retrofit's sponsors, recognized a multitude of problems with the house's lighting scheme. Portraits were hung with no directed light. China cabinets and curios were desperate for attention, said Osram's Susan Reminger. The existing fixtures and glaring bulbs also were obviously out of place in rooms full of antiquity.

Improving the aesthetic of the museum was the primary concern, but the lighting retrofit had some great side benefits. By using lighting more effectively and efficiently, energy costs at the Gables were trimmed. It took approximately 4,275 kW to light the house before the retrofit. This figure dropped to 4,131 kW after the retrofit, for a total savings of about 145 kW (see Table 1 for a partial listing).

Finally, it was important to cut down the amount of heat generated in this non-air-conditioned structure.

Design Challenges According to Cari Palmer, director of marketing and development for the Gables, the Illumination of the Gables was completed with the help of lighting designer D. Schweppe, of Schweppe Lighting Design Incorporated, and electrician Bruce Whear and his crew from Wire-4-Hire, who are well versed in historic architecture. In all, the crew installed more than 74 fixtures and lamps, running over 200 ft of wire. First, preservationists inspected the house to determine what work could be done without harming any original building material. They indicated where wire could be inserted, how fixtures could be installed, and what should be left alone.

Working within these parameters to bring the museum's lighting into the 20th century posed a challenge to D. Schweppe. His first objective was to preserve the look of the house by reducing the size of the fixtures and hiding them whenever possible. Lighting levels were to remain the same--a low 5 foot-candles in each room (adequate light to see well enough to walk around comfortably)--in keeping with preservation requirements. However, artifacts and architectural details needed more direct light to bring them into view.

The preservation committee decreed that no additional holes were to be made in walls, ceilings, or floors, unless they were hidden inside closet spaces. That meant making use of existing wiring and using remote transformers to step down the voltage when necessary. Still, Schweppe wanted to replace all of the hundred or so dated fixtures and glaring incandescent bulbs that spoiled the look and did nothing to highlight the museum's many artifacts.

The obvious choice for efficient lamps in so many museums today--compact fluorescents--was not appropriate for the House of the Seven Gables. Most of the lighting levels available with CFLs today would have been too bright for the Gables. And to focus the lowest level of compact fluorescent light for the variety of spot lighting tasks needed throughout the house would have required fixtures much larger than the existing ones, defeating the goal of hiding or at least reducing most sources of electric light. Low ambient levels were needed to achieve a particular look and feel in the space; the goal of the retrofit was not to add more ambient illumination, but rather to use small pools of accent lighting to call attention to particular items of interest. For this application, low-voltage halogens proved better suited than most CFLs. Ambient lighting was provided, where needed, by halogen floodlights.

With very few exceptions, occupancy sensors, timers, and other modern controls were out of the question. Most of these devices require their own hard wiring, breaking the no new holes, no new wiring edict. Also, light schemes that are preprogrammed, automated, or timed--and so cannot be controlled by the tour interpreter--are not tour-friendly.

High-Tech Solutions Schweppe found a number of new lamps and fixtures to work with that met the criteria. He used low-voltage quartz halogen task lighting for most of the small-space spot lighting needs. A combination of halogen PAR20 or PAR30 lamps with low-voltage halogen lamps in track lighting to illuminate many of the larger areas.

In many of the rooms, track lighting was already in place in the form of 20-year-old fixtures using standard 100W to 150W A-lamps--standard incandescent bulbs. The new design made use of the holes and some hardware already installed on the ancient timber ceiling beams but called for new tracks that were significantly smaller in scale and supported smaller PAR20 and PAR30 quartz halogen lamps at 50 to 75 watts.

All the decorative fixtures were relamped with clear, long-life, lower-wattage incandescents to increase their light output while cutting back on consumption. Because other spot lighting was added in many rooms, less lighting was required for the decorative fixtures. This lowered the overall wattage used.

Illumination in the Attic

In the attic, where visitors used to squint to see displays of the actual post-and-beam architecture under the glare of exposed R-40 (reflector) lamps, crews installed new tracks by concealing the wiring and hardware behind the beams and focusing the PAR30 spotlights directly on the beams and other artifacts instead of into the tourists' eyes.

In areas to be lighted where no 120-volt wiring existed, but smaller wire could easily be concealed by running it atop beams and along baseboards, Schweppe resorted to low-voltage track lighting with MR16 lamps. Low-voltage lamps in the form of 5W quartz strip lighting were used extensively in display cabinets throughout the house. According to Schweppe, most of the cabinets are wide open and pose no problem for heat buildup, a concern when using halogen lamps (even at that low wattage).

The enclosed parlor display cabinet, which houses an impressive collection of 17th- and 18th-century porcelain, was an exception. To prevent heat buildup here, Schweppe specified a fluorescent T2 lamp with a small sleeve to protect the artifacts from UV radiation. This lamp requires less frequent replacement than other lamps, minimizing the need to go inside the cabinet and risk breaking the fragile items.

For the inside of the cabinetry, Schweppe considered fiber optics--simple strands of fiber fitted into the crevices to emit light. However, this setup would have required running the fiber quite a distance from its power source, and unlike power cable, fiber cannot be bent very much without damaging it. Given all the ways that wires were snaked and twisted throughout the house, fiber-optic cable was not an option.

A Glow in the Fireplace

Perhaps the most impressive change took place in the house's many fireplaces. Crews installed 5W quartz strip lighting inside or up underneath the lintel of each fireplace to bring out its architectural detail. The transformers to step down the standard voltage to low voltage were hidden in the basement, well out of sight, and the wiring was hidden in the mortar joints and any cracks that the crews could find. The three fireplaces in the house that have cast-iron firebacks had previously been unlit. They now reveal beautiful detail, thanks to fixtures from Task Lighting and Sylvania's Starline halogen display lamps.

Prior to the retrofit, the kitchen had been lit only by three 75W incandescent bulbs in jelly-jar fixtures, shining down onto the fireplace and the corner cabinet. The cabinet was retrofitted with task lights (strip lights) along the inside edge of the molding to bring out its artifacts. The kitchen fireplace, a huge walk-in affair showcasing colonial ironware and utensils, was retrofitted with a new track of 50W PAR20 halogen lamps tucked up out of the line of sight and directing light onto the 17th-century tools hanging inside.

A number of decorative fixtures remain in the Cent Shop, sewing room, and bedrooms, but all of the standard 100W incandescent bulbs have been changed to lower-wattage, long-life clear bulbs which, Schweppe says, allow modest energy savings without appreciable light loss. In the front hall, the preservation committee opted to use only the decorative wall fixtures with the new clear bulbs to avoid having to install any additional wiring, and the rooting and ravaging inside the ancient plaster that would be required for track or any other lighting.

Shedding Light on Dark Secrets

The home's most famous attribute--the secret staircase--was treated to an upgrade as well. The staircase was not secret at the time the book was written; it was walled in just prior to the Civil War, when, it is thought, the occupants participated in the Underground Railroad, the covert effort to hide slaves fleeing from the South.

Like the staircase and the fugitives who used it, the upgrade had to be almost invisible. Before it was done, guests had to feel their way up to the attic because so little light came from the standard bulb wall fixtures at the bottom and top of the stair. After the retrofit, the stair was illuminated by a jelly jar fixture housing a new 75W quartz lamp that was installed under the staircase and shone through the open treads. Schweppe says he chose the yellow tones of light from the quartz lamp to play up the atmosphere of the hidden staircase, in which the CFL color would have looked too institutional.

A Museum of Wires Credit for the tricky installations goes to Bruce Whear and his crew. According to Whear, they encountered a museum of wires in the house--everything from nonmetallic sheathed cable, to armored cable, to knob-and-tube wiring. They also had to work around the schedule of a very busy museum, completing each day's work before the house opened for tours at 10:00 am.

Whear had to avoid marking, puncturing, or otherwise damaging the existing antique structure. Instead, he used every existing crack, every hidden crevice in the floorboards that would allow wire to be concealed or snaked through with the least intrusion possible.

In the kitchen fireplace, low-voltage wiring twisted and turned through a maze of mortar joints and snaked to a crack between two wide pine floorboards, ending in the cellar for its final connection. In the garret, wiring for the new track lighting supported on the gable beams was tucked painstakingly up into the spaces above the beams where they meet the roof. Whear admitted that his crew had their share of splinters by the time the job was finished.

Blow Out the Candles Finally, on the moonlit night of July 10, a crowd gathered for a gala celebration of the house's 330th birthday and waited in the dark for the Illumination of the Gables. When the preservation committee flipped the switch, the public and the museum benefactors got their first glimpse of the grand old home's new look. They responded with appreciation and amazement. The right technology, lamps, and fixtures had preserved, enlightened, and saved energy for a venerable matriarch of historic monuments.

Sandy Cataldo is a freelance writer and a fan of history, writing about energy issues and other mysterious subjects in Massachusetts.

Lamps and all expenses for the House of the Seven Gables retrofit were provided by Osram Sylvania of Danvers, Massachusetts. Light fixtures were donated by Lightolier of Fall River, Massachusetts and Task Lighting of Kearney, Nebraska.

For information on the House of the Seven Gables, contact: House of the Seven Gables, 54 Turner St., Salem, MA 01970. Tel:(978)744-0991; Fax:(978) 741-4350; Web site:


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