Category Archives: Research

Mushroom Tech Cleans Up at Lake Erie State Park

For many people, mushrooms can be a healthy, tasty addition at mealtime. But along the Lake Erie shoreline south of Buffalo, the science of mushrooms is being used in an innovative way – as an environmentally-safe method to reduce harmful bacteria in a stream near the beach at Lake Erie State Park.

At the beginning of this decade, tests of the stream and water at the beach by the State Parks Water Quality Unit were showing consistently high levels of e. coli, a bacteria found in fecal matter which can severely sicken those who have been exposed.

The sand and cobble beach in Chautauqua County had been closed to swimming for several years due to a combination of high bacterial levels and fiscal constraints. Testing indicated that the problem likely was being caused by faulty septic systems or unsewered properties upstream, although additional contamination from animals could not be ruled out as another potential source.

While there are mechanical and chemical techniques  to filter such harmful bacteria from water, in 2014 Water Quality staff decided  to test an innovative mushroom-based system developed by Fungi Perfecti, a Washington-state based company with a long research history into fungus and mushrooms, a scientific field known as mycology.

Company founder and owner Paul Stamets is a nationally- and internationally-recognized expert and promotes innovative uses for mushrooms in bioremediation and medical therapies. He even entered the realm of popular culture when creators of the latest Star Trek franchise, which started in 2017 on CBS All Access, named the ship’s science officer after him as part of the use of a a mushroom-based propulsion system for the Starship Enterprise.

Meanwhile, back here in New York State and with funding support from the federal Great Lake Restoration Initiative, water quality staffers at State Parks installed a Stamets-designed mycofiltration system into this small creek at the Park.

The filtration system uses large plastic containers called totes that contain a mixture of wood chips and mycelium (the tiny threadlike vegetative part of fungi that fruits as mushrooms) that allow water to pass through. This allows the mycelium mixture to absorb bacteria from contaminated water as it flows past.

A crane drops the mycofiltration tote into position within a concrete weir that channels the stream. (Photo Credit- State Parks)
Microscopic image of mycelium (Photo Credit- Fungi Perfecti)

So far, the test results seem promising. E. coli levels downstream of the filtration system have dropped and water quality at the beach has improved, although outside factors, including improvements in the surrounding watershed, may have contributed.

The mycelium in the totes were reinoculated – another way of saying reimplanted and reinvigorated – in 2016 and 2019. Data from this project is being shared with Fungi Perfecti to assist in their research and development of their system.

Said Renee Davis, director of research and development at Fungi Perfecti, “We are proud of the contributions that fungal mycelium has been able to make for Lake Erie State Park and the surrounding ecosystems. Though we still face challenges with scalability of this technology, the applications are promising. We are closely studying the aspects of fungal metabolism that drive these effects, particularly the secretion of specialized compounds from mycelium into the environment.”

She added, “New potential applications have also arisen for bioretention and stormwater. For us, this project is an example of the possibilities that emerge when we look at nature—particularly fungi—in a new, creative, and innovative way. We hope this is the first of many projects to come using mushroom mycelium for water quality.”

Mycelium and wood chips are mixed together in the totes. (Photo Credit- State Parks)
Totes rest within the concrete channel of the stream. (Photo Credit- State Parks)

Currently, this is the only State Park where this chemical-free, ecologically-safe method is being tested, although it could be introduced into the Finger Lakes region if a suitable location can be found.


Cover Shot: NYS Parks crews service the mycofiltration unit in Lake Erie State Park in 2016.

More Resources

See a technical display of the project here

Hear Fungi Perfecti Founder Paul Stamets give a TED lecture on the potential uses of mushrooms.

Fungi Perfecti founder and owner Paul Stamets. (Photo Credit- Fungi Perfecti)

Stamets’ awards include Invention Ambassador (2014-2015) for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Mycologist Award (2014) from the North American Mycological Association (NAMA), and the Gordon & Tina Wasson Award (2015) from the Mycological Society of America (MSA).

Currently, Stamets is testing extracts of rare mushroom strains at the NIH (National Institutes of Health/Virology) and with Washington State University/United States Department of Agriculture against a wide panel of viruses pathogenic to humans, animals and bees.

Read what local Capital Region entrepreneur Eben Bayer, owner of Ecovative Design, a mushroom-based packaging and development business based in Green Island, has to say about the scientific potential of mycelium.

Check out the Mushroom Blog at Cornell University.


Post by April Brun and Gabriella Cebada Mora, NYS Parks Water Quality Unit

Hope Takes Wing for Endangered Bird

Here in New York, we have residents nicknamed ‘snow birds’: People who enjoy summers on New York’s beaches, but escape our harsh winters by traveling south to Florida. Making that journey right along with them is another species of beach bum — the small, endangered shorebird called the Piping Plover.

Usually weighing about two ounces or less, the Piping Plover is a tiny bird that is undeniably and objectively cute; just ask anyone that is working to restore the population. It’s a bird that’s easy to fall in love with but that requires hard work to recover.

There are three distinct populations of Piping Plover: the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes, which both breed in New York State, and the Great Plains. Due to shoreline habitat loss and disturbance, all three populations significantly declined in the mid-twentieth century, leading to their listing under the Endangered Species Act as threatened (Atlantic and Great Plains populations) and endangered (Great Lakes population) in 1986.

The recovery of the Piping Plover has been a slow and intensive process. At the time of listing, the endangered Great Lakes population had only an estimated 17 breeding pairs — with no birds nesting on the Great Lakes shores of New York. For 29 years, no plover nests had been seen on New York’s lake shores.

Finally, in 2015 a pair of Piping Plovers showed up on the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario in and around Sandy Island Beach State Park in Oswego County.

Sandy Island Beach State Park is located on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. (Credit: Google Maps)

New York State Parks and Department of Environmental Conservation employees, Audubon New York employees, and volunteers teamed up to monitor the plovers and reduce disturbances from humans and predators in hopes that the birds would stick around and raise their young.

Although the birds were not successful that year, plovers kept returning each summer to the State Park, and in 2018 and again in 2019, were able to raise chicks

These adult Piping Plovers, banded with orange flags on their legs, successfully nested at Sandy Island Beach State Park in 2019. The male plover (right), can be distinguished from the female by its bolder brow and neck bands.

Throughout the spring and summer months when Piping Plovers are found at breeding sites, shorebird technicians monitor nests and chicks until young birds are fledged, meaning they are capable of sustaining flight. Researchers also band as many plovers as they can in the Great Lakes. Used for identification, bird banding is a common research practice, and is an extremely useful tool in understanding behavior, life expectancy, population sizes, and migrations of birds.

Above: A trained and licensed bander prepares to apply unique bands to a chick in 2018. Below: In 2018, the Piping Plover chicks had Lord of the Rings-inspired nicknames: Frodo (right) and Pippin (left) show off their new bands as they scurry back to their nearby parents. Photo Credit: Tom Morrissette.

For endangered populations, banding can provide essential information about site use that can guide future conservation in both breeding and wintering grounds. For the plovers at Sandy Island Beach State Park, bird banding helped researchers track two fledglings after migration, one to Georgia in 2018 and another to Florida in 2019. These were the first Great Lakes fledglings from New York to be spotted in their wintering grounds in the south.

The young birds are each marked with a unique combination of bands, like name tags, which allows staff to identify individual birds and assign fun nicknames to the newly hatched chicks. The fledge sighted in Georgia in 2018 was named Gimli, and our 2019 fledge, affectionately nicknamed Chewie (proper name Chewbacca) was spotted in Florida soon after it had left New York. The first fledge from the Great Lakes seen on wintering grounds in 2019, little Chewie had made the nearly 1,300-mile journey in only three to four days!

Chewie (background) and its sibling, Yoda (foreground) both successfully fledged from Sandy Island Beach State Park in 2019. They can be distinguished by the unique combination of colored bands on their legs.

This feat is no small matter, as plovers face many challenges before the eggs have even hatched. Coastal development has reduced available nesting habitat, and the open sand suitable for nesting is also the most desirable location for human recreation. Conflict with humans can lead to birds abandoning territory, nesting attempts, and even viable eggs. If a nest can be established, the threat of predation now looms.

Piping Plovers lay their eggs in the sand. These nests generally contain four eggs, and the adults often spend time “decorating” the nests with delicate rocks and shell fragments.

Plovers lay their well-camouflaged eggs in shallow depressions, called scrapes, on sparsely vegetated sand. This makes it easy for plovers to spot predators, but also provides no protection from critters that discover the nests. Therefore, it is common for shorebird stewards to build an exclosure around the nest. This is a fence with spaces large enough for plovers to pass through, but small enough to prevent predators from reaching the eggs (click here to learn more about the work of State Parks Plover Stewards). This can prevent eggs from becoming a meal for foxes, crows, gulls and other predators, but still does not guarantee hatching. Their beach home can get flooded by high water levels and the exposed sand can become very hot.

Still, Piping Plovers are adapted to these conditions and are dedicated and attentive parents. Exclosed nests have a high chance of reaching their hatch date.

The new chicks hatched safely within the wire of the predator exclosure that was placed around the nest. But they won’t stay in there for long!

But our small friends are not in the clear yet! The chicks are precocial, meaning they are able to leave the nest only a few hours after hatching. The highly mobile chicks obtain food on their own under the watchful eyes of their parents, but constant running can easily exhaust the hatchlings and makes them an easy target for predators.

Combined with the stressors of human recreation, it truly becomes a miracle to reach fledging age. Humans can disturb plovers, often unintentionally, by scaring adults off nests, preventing adults and young from feeding near the water, or even accidentally stepping on nests and eggs. Remember that these birds are very small with feathers and eggs that are well camouflaged for sandy beaches, so be sure to keep an eye out when visiting beaches with designated nesting areas!

It should be no surprise to learn that, on average, for every pair of plovers only about one chick typically survives to fledging. This one fledgling must then face a long journey south to wintering grounds on their own. That two young birds, including Chewie, were raised at Sandy Island Beach State Park and made it to their winter homes was a good sign. Continued monitoring in New York will tell us whether these plovers return to raise their own young.

This map shows the typical migration routes for all three populations of Piping Plover. Credit: Illustration by Megan Bishop/Cornell Lab of Ornithology and accessed via Facebook page for Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort.

From egg-laying and hatching to fledging and migrating, Piping Plovers face threats and obstacles at every turn. Since the return of the Piping Plovers to the eastern shores of Lake Ontario, there have been six successful fledges from Sandy Island Beach State Park. Until we know if the young survived their first migration south, it can be difficult to gauge the success of the recovery plan. Therefore, this incredible flight of young Chewie, documented by its unique bands, is a symbol of success and high hopes for the ongoing efforts to recover the population of this charismatic shorebird.


Post by Lindsey DeLuna, OPRHP Environmental Steward and Student Conservation Association member

Cover Photo: The fledgling from Sandy Island Beach State Park, nicknamed “Chewbacca,” after his arrival at a Florida beach in early August 2019. Photo Credit: Wendy Meehan.

To learn more about Piping Plover banding and how to report sightings, follow the links below:

https://www.greatlakespipingplover.org/reporting-plover-observations

https://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/report_bands.html

All photos, unless otherwise stated, were provided courtesy of Alivia Sheffield, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator at Sandy Island Beach State Park and a trained staff member. Remember to observe wildlife from a safe distance, and never approach nests or chicks.

Big Hopes for Little “Army” in Parks’ Fight against Hemlock Invaders

As the third most common tree in New York, hemlocks fill our forests and are found in many New York State Parks. Located along hiking trails, streams, gorges, campsites, and lake shores, the evergreens can live to be hundreds of years old, providing vital ecosystem services and supporting unique habitats.

In addition to providing homes and food for many forest creatures, hemlocks also keep fresh water resources cool and clean by moderating water temperature and acting as a natural filtration system along streams. Since hemlocks are such a critical component of eastern forests, they are known as a “foundation species.”

Hemlocks in New York have been under attack by an invasive forest insect pest that originated from southern Japan, the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), which after being found in Virginia in the 1950s has spread to kill untold millions of hemlocks from Georgia to Maine.

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid infestation in the Eastern U.S. (U.S. Forest Service)

Adelgids are tiny insects that insert piercing-sucking mouthparts into hemlock twigs, causing damage to woody tissue that inhibits water and nutrients from reaching emerging hemlock buds. This limits the growth of new twigs and eventually kills the tree.

First detected in New York in the 1980s, the insects have spread through the Hudson Valley, Catskills, Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions. Infested hemlocks can be found at state parks including Harriman, Minnewaska, Taughannock Falls, Watkins Glen, Letchworth, and Allegany.

At about 6/100ths of an inch long, the flightless adelgids are hard to spot, but in the winter through early summer leave distinctive white “woolly” egg masses on hemlock twigs. In an infestation, developing buds are killed first, then in a few years, the weakened tree loses its needles and dies.

Left, a dead hemlock after being killed by HWA. Right, a healthy tree.
A map of New York State towns and counties where HWA had been found in the Hudson Valley, Capital Region, and Southern Tier by 2017. The HWA has yet to move into the Adirondacks or the Tug Hill Plateau. (State Department of Environmental Conservation)

The threat posed by HWA is dire, especially since the state’s ecosystems lack natural controls _ known as biocontrols _ such as predators or tree resistance that could fend off some infestations and avert widespread hemlock destruction.

Currently, insecticide treatments are our only sure option for saving trees, but trees must be treated on an individual basis, so it can be costly or impractical to treat large swaths of hemlocks. In parks with thousands of trees and important or rare ecosystems to protect, biocontrol is the only solution to counter a pest like HWA.

But biocontrol against the invading adelgid may be on the way. It is the form of a small dark beetle and a small silvery fly, nicknamed “Little Lari” (Laricobius nigrinus) and “Little Leuc” (Leucopis spp.), respectively, by researchers at the New York State Hemlock Initiative at Cornell University.

Led by forest entomologist Mark Whitmore, the program operates a biocontrol lab researching the introduction of HWA predators throughout New York, hoping to protect hemlock trees by slowing the spread of adelgids into new areas.

The NYSHI collects these predators in the Pacific Northwest where HWA is native and has many predators controlling population growth so the hemlocks are not damaged. The collected beetles and flies are shipped to the quarantine facility at Cornell  to be certain none of the western adelgids are accidentally introduced into New York with the predators.

Knowing where to release these “good bugs” can be a challenge, but we are helped in this by State Parks staff, who provide critical data from ground surveys to find emerging infestations, assess potential biocontrol sites, and monitor for whether the biocontrol insects are thriving and growing in their new homes.


Read this post in the State Parks blog by Abigail Pierson, state Parks Forest Health Specialist, to learn how crews search for and document the presence of HWA.


Since 2009, the Cornell initiative has released more than 4,500 Laricobius beetles in State Parks including Harriman in Rockland County, Letchworth in Wyoming County, Mine Kill in Schoharie County, and Taughannock Falls, Buttermilk Falls, and Robert H. Treman in Tompkins County. Additionally, parks staff at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Ulster County helped survey for Laricobius beetle establishment, and mapped hemlocks to help identify hemlocks stands and prioritize HWA surveys in the park. 

Since 2015, when Leucopis silver fly releases began, researchers have released more than 3,300 flies at several state park sites including Taughannock Falls and Buttermilk Falls state parks in Tompkins County.

“Little Lari” (Laricobius nigrinus) (New York State Hemlock Initiative)
“Little Leuc” (Leucopis spp.) (New York State Hemlock Initiative)

While there has been no evidence of the biocontrol bugs suppressing HWA populations on a large scale, it takes time for predator populations to build. There has been recovery of Laricobius beetles at some sites, indicating establishment. By continuing to release more “Little Laris” and “Little Leucs” to bolster those established populations, we will be able to build on that initial success.

The list of parks that have reported HWA infestations is growing, especially in the Capital Region. Thacher State Park in the Capital Region reported adelgid infestations in 2017 and while insecticide treatments reduced the local problem, the insects continue to threaten the Adirondacks, which so far remains uninfested.

In State Parks, preventing dead trees from injuring park visitors or damaging park infrastructure including campsites and trails is crucial. Additionally, preventing the loss of a critical foundation tree species in forest habitats is another major priority.

Park visitors can play an active role in slowing the spread of the adelgid in New York by keeping an eye on hemlocks. Reporting any infestations that you find provides researchers and land managers with invaluable data for improving our management efforts.



How You Can Help

If you believe you have found HWA:

  • Take pictures of the infestation signs (include something for scale such as a coin or ruler).
  • Note the location (intersecting roads, landmarks or GPS coordinates).
  • Fill out the hemlock woolly adelgid survey form.
  • Email report and photos to Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Health foresthealth@dec.ny.gov or call the Forest Health Information Line at 1-866-640-0652.
  • Contact your local Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) by visiting http://www.nyis.info/.
  • Report the infestation at iMapInvasives.
  • Slow the spread of HWA in our forests by cleaning equipment or gear after it has been near an infestation, and by leaving infested material where it was found.

The New York State Hemlock Initiative has produced a variety of educational videos on the threat posed to hemlocks by the HWA.


Cover Photo: A hemlock branch showing the woolly white egg masses of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)


Post by Charlotte Malmborg, Education and Outreach Technician, New York State Hemlock Initiative, Cornell University Dept. of Natural Resources

“Paper Box Mystery” at George Washington’s HQ

Every house can tell stories about the people who have lived in it, and sometimes, that story is a mystery.

Last year, a worker at the Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh was doing renovations when he reached behind an attic chimney and found something he was not expecting.

There, in a place not easily seen or reached, was a small paper box, discolored with age and wrapped with a now-brittle ribbon. And inside were a ring and a thimble, both made of gold and engraved with the single letter “M.”

The gold again glitters on the ring and thimble after restoration by State Parks conservation experts.

The historic Hasbrouck House served as the headquarters for General George Washington from April 1781 until August 1782. And Washington’s wife Martha lived in the house during that time as well, so could the items have been associated with her?

As it turned out, that was not the answer. Further examination of the ring, thimble and box by State Parks conservation experts Amanda Massie, Heidi Miksch, and Michele Phillips from the State Parks Division of Historic Preservation determined the items dated between the 1850s to 1860s. That was long after the Washingtons had left, and in the era after the Hasbrouck House became the first publicly-owned historic site in the nation in 1850.

Both items were likely gifts meant to represent symbolic hopes for a happy domestic life, and for some reason, remained hidden in the attic for more than a century until discovered accidentally.

The ring and thimble shortly after being removed from the box, which shows the ravages of time.

The thimble was made of 20-karat gold and likely was not meant to be routinely used for sewing. Often given as keepsakes to a bride-to-be, thimbles were recognized as a sign of romantic courtship in 19th century America. The practice goes back in history to the time of William Shakespeare.

Made of 10-12 karat gold, the ring was found to have a latched compartment, which inside held a tiny bit of red fabric, possibly silk, encased in glass. Such cloth keepsakes were common in the 19th century as a way to remember a loved one or special event.

So, who put the gifts there? And who was “M”? At this point, we do not know for sure … But State Parks researchers have unearthed some clues.

“First, we identified that stone in the ring was goldstone, which is actually glass with coppery flecks in it,” said Amanda Massie, curator of the Bureau of Historic Sites, based in Waterford. “To date the ring and thimble, I used historic trade catalogs from the 1880s and 1890s _ both jewelry catalogs and stores such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward to see if they had any items of the same style.”

Those searches yielded some similar objects, but none were identical. Massie then researched museum jewelry collections. “Here, I found more success in styles close to the ring with generic 19th century dates,” she said. “With the help of colleagues, I was able to contact curators who specialize in 19th century jewelry to better date the items. They believed that the ring and thimble dated from the 1850s to 1860s. Goldstone was very popular then and the thimble’s more simple design, suggested an earlier 19th century date.”

An example of a goldstone ring from an 1887 catalog entitled The Busiest House in America.
Examples of gold and silver thimbles from an 1895 catalog of Chicago-based retailer E.V. Roddin & Co.

While the ring and thimble were not luxurious, they have been considered prized keepsakes to a person of average means at the time.

These rough dates suggested a possible time-frame as to when the objects might have been placed in the attic and who might have done it, with the letter “M” as the main guide.

“We looked in census records for both Hasbrouck family members and family members of the caretakers to find candidates,” Massie said. “Mary Hasbrouck Smith was the sister of the last owner of the house and lived in the house as a child. It is possible she left the ring and thimble in the house when it was handed over to the state, but it is more likely that it is from after the house became a museum in 1850.”

The first caretaker, Levi Woolsey, had a wife named Margaret and a daughter named Mary. There was also a servant in the house named Mary Murphey. “Any of these women could have hidden the ring and thimble. Another caretaker, Alfred Goodrich, had a daughter named May who also could be our “M” in question,” said Massie. “Though we do not know for certain who left the ring, we now have a wonderful treasure to add to the collections at our first State Historic Site. “

The historic Hasbrouck House at the Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site

Parks staffers at the Hasbrouck House later brought this discovery to the attention of 9th grade honor students at the Newburgh Free Academy, who used it in a creative writing assignment on the “Paper Box Mystery.”

The Newburgh students imagined tragic tales of love unrequited or unfulfilled for how the ring and thimble came to be hidden and never retrieved.

Michael Abrams wrote a tale about a young man who bought the items for a girl that he wanted to propose to, only to be called up to fight and die in the Civil War, never to return to the home where he had hidden his treasure.

Another story, by student Megan Bell, imaged a young man named Edgar, who loved a girl named Mary, with the story told by Mary’s sister. Edgar had brought the box to the family’s home, and hidden it as a surprise. But he never got to give it, and was found dead in a nearby river only a few days later. And Mary “never found someone else she wanted to keep company with.”

And to student Anthony Manzi, the box’s secretive location suggested a romantic scavenger hunt gone sour. A suitor had hidden the ring and thimble in the attic, with instructions to his supposed sweetheart on how to find it, only to learn she was going with someone else, leaving him to abandon the box altogether. The spurned swain then “avoided every place she could possibly be. I never set foot in her house again.”

The story of the mystery box even managed to find its way around the globe _ a class from Australia heard about it in news reports and crafted their own stories. Australian teachers often seek out interesting stories from the United States to help teach American history, and this tale caught their interest.


Here is what the teacher wrote:

Hello, I am a primary school teacher in Melbourne, Australia and I showed my class the news story about the paper box that was found in the roof of the historic Washington building. We were hoping there might be an update on that find from local historians, but we cannot find any information online.

Can you help us out?

Kind regards, Linda V.


Most people might think that for a historic site like Washington’s Headquarters, opened to the public for almost 170 years, there is nothing left to learn and no mysteries to find. That is obviously not true, especially here at Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site!

Our historic preservation experts here at State Parks have developed the clues we know so far about the two items in the mystery box. Whether the mystery is ever completely unraveled, only time will tell. History is alive, and with conservators, curators and other professionals at the helm, the journey into our past will continue.

It was in this house that the General announced the cease fire that signaled victory in the Revolutionary War, authored some of his thoughts for the new republic, and created the Badge of Military Merit, the forerunner of the Purple Heart awarded to all American service members wounded or killed.

To visit these and other objects in the collection, visit Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site.  For hours, directions and/or further information, call 845-562-1195 or visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/washingtonsheadquarters.

Post by Elyse B. Goldberg, Historic Site Manager, Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site

21st century technology Recreates 18th century Luxury

When Alexander Hamilton was married at Schuyler family mansion in Albany, the residence was a pinnacle of style in Colonial America.

Home to one of the region’s richest families, the Georgian-styled mansion was decorated with luxurious wallpaper, rich fabrics, and even an ornamental papier maché ceiling that had been custom made and imported from England around 1760.

This ornate ceiling graced the mansion’s Best Parlor, where Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler in December 1780, as the Revolutionary War raged into its fifth year.

Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. The couple have new-found popularity from the successful Broadway musical play Hamilton. Source: Friends of Schuyler Mansion

To get his decorative ceiling, Philip Schuyler had simply selected designs from a catalog, provided room dimensions with his order and a complete ceiling was shipped ready to install.  Schuyler could have chosen from birds, flowers, shells, moldings, festoons, musical instruments — images that represented his interests and image.

This was not made with the papier maché that people might recall making in school — no newspaper and white glue. This was cotton rag pulp and papier maché that was mixed with water into a oatmeal-like slurry, and then pressed into a variety of hand-carved wooden molds to dry and set. 

The resulting super-light and slightly flexible ornaments were inexpensive to ship and easy to install. After a little glue and few tacks to set the ornaments in place, a ceiling was ready for painting.   Once done, it gave a stylish look similar to more expensive plaster ornamentation.

During the years, the parlor ceiling at Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site was removed and lost for reasons unknown. But Historic Site Manager Heidi Hill wanted it back after part of efforts to restore mansion for its 100th anniversary as a State Historic Site. 

The challenge to the Peebles Island-based Bureau of Historic Site and Park Services, part of the NY State Parks Division for Historic Preservation, was how to recreate something that has not been commercially produced in 150 years.

Making new hand-carved molds was out of the question; it would take too much time and cost too much money.

However, the team at State Parks had an amazing resource — an existing, rare and wonderful example of a mid-18th century papier maché ceiling at the Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, Westchester County. This mansion has the only complete surviving example of this type of ceiling in the United States.  

However, this ceiling was too significant and too fragile to risk being damaged by the pressure and stress of taking contact from a traditional mold. This is where laser-based, 3D imaging technology came to the rescue.

In a pioneering project, State Parks partnered with Ithaca College’s Physics and Astronomy Department and the Friends of Schuyler Mansion to have the Philipse Manor Hall ceiling 3D scanned by portable laser units that fire pulses of light up to one million times a second. Light is then reflected back to a receiver, which measures how long the light took to return, using the data to create high-resolution scans that captured details down to 100 microns or 4/1,000th of an inch.

Headed by Professor Michael “Bodhi’ Rogers, the Ithaca College team 3D scanned nearly the entire interior and exterior of the historic Philipse Manor Hall, said Charles Casimiro, an historic site assistant there.

Professor Michael “Bodhi” Rogers, right, with Ithaca College students Evan van de Wall and Ryan Fedora, using laser scanner at Philipse Manor Hall. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi” Rogers.

“This effort for Schuyler Mansion was a very exciting project to work on … we were using this technology to do something that had never been done before,” said Rogers, who recently became the new chairman of the Physics Department at the University of Colorado at Denver.

It took three visits to Philipse Manor Hall between 2015 and 2017 to get all the scans, he said. With the newest scanner, students could use a hand-held device, wave it around the room and watch the image on the computer as it filled in, “kind of like painting with your hand,” said Rogers.

Ithaca College student Demitri Hector sets up a laser scanner at Philipse Manor Hall. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi’ Rogers.
Lasers scan a ceiling bust of Sir Issac Newton. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi’ Rogers
The scans are rendered into an image on the computer. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi” Rogers.
Ithaca College student Kevin Pomer uses a hand-held scanner on the ceiling at Philipse Manor Hall. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi” Rogers.

In 2015, Rogers’ team also 3D scanned the Grant Cottage State Historic Site in Wilton.

The scanning of Grant’s Cottage, where Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant spent the final six weeks of his life writing his memoirs, is now being used to help protect the 1870s structure from fire, said Ben Kemp, site manager for the Friends of Grant Cottage. He said the data is being used to help design a modern fire detection and suppression system.

Rogers said this kind of scanning technology also will help in the rebuilding of fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which was scanned in 2015.

When the laser scans at Philipse Manor Hall were completed, State Parks had computer images that revealed every paint brush stroke, age crack and tiny detail on the manor’s 250-year-old ceiling, which features images of lute players, bagpipers and singers, as well as busts of Sir Isaac Newton and poet Alexander Pope .

A drawing based on the 3D laser scan of the ornate ceiling design at Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site

To reproduce this ceiling in Schuyler Mansion, the original idea was to use the scans for a 3D printer to create each unique ornament in plastic. The Bureau of Historic Sites would then use traditional molding and casting methods to make new molds, which would then be used to produce the papier maché ornaments.

But Rogers’ team then figured out how to use the 3D imagery to create computer commands for the State Parks printer to instead make the concave molds used to receive the papier maché .  A total of 55 unique molds were needed to recreate the Philipse Manor ceiling.  

These molds were printed in Peebles Island’s Architectural Conservation lab at the Bureau of Historic Sites & Park Services. A printer works using a spool of bioplastic filament, which is heated into a liquid and then fed through a printer head that created the molds layer by layer.

State Parks Architectural Conservator Erin Moroney making molds on a 3D printer at her Peebles Island offices.

Many molds were too large to fit the printer bed, and so were digitally rendered into smaller pieces and then physically welded together later with a high-temperature 3D pen.  

With molds ready, we started making papier maché. Traditional cotton rag papier pulp was pressed  into the molds and the water squeezed out  with large sponges. 

A section of papier maché ornament with its mold.

More than 300 pieces were cast to make the ceiling, using over 500 pounds of paper pulp. The edges of each casting were hand trimmed. Each piece of ornament was then primed and boxed up for installation.

More than 98 percent of the ceiling was installed by three State Parks staffers in under a week. Hot glue was used to adhere the ornament to the ceiling. The ornament edges were then caulked where necessary and the entire ceiling painted. Once finished, the ornamental ceiling now looks like it has always been there.

Now installed at Philip Schuyler Mansion, this is only the second complete papier maché ceiling in the Unite States.

Erin Moroney and Bill VonAtzingen install the new ceiling at Philip Schuyler Mansion.
Erin Moroney paints the new ceiling at Philip Schuyler Mansion.
Bill VonAtzingen, a State Parks restoration carpenter, paints papier maché ornaments for installation.
See the complete process, from 3D printing of molds, to installation of the ceiling.
A detail from the ceiling at Philip Schuyler Mansion.
A 360-degree view of the restored ceiling.

Over the next few weeks the Parlor also received a crystal chandelier, an imported English loomed carpet and new custom-made drapes. The result is amazing.  For the first time in over a century—the grandeur of the Best Parlor is restored to the time of the Hamilton wedding, from the floor to the ceiling.

Philip Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.

Post by Erin E. Moroney, architectural conservator, Bureau of Historic Site & Park Services.