— Peter Gedrys has a steady hand and exhales carefully over his shoulder when applying gold leaf. The slightest puff of air would crease the gossamer sheets. Who would believe that this tall, lanky silver-haired craftsman, with his attention to perfection, was once a construction diver building undersea piers and bulkheads?
Gedrys, 61, shows his 10 fingers noting how lucky he is to still have them after his last job. These days, his hands coax a lustrous glow from a carved wooden chair. Inspecting his work, he says, “If you can see my hand, I haven’t succeeded. You shouldn’t even know I was there.”
Gedrys calls his business Architectural Finishes. Although he restores both antique and reproduction furniture, he is especially sought out by antique dealers. A regular contributor to Fine Woodworking Magazine, his projects range from the lavish furnishings of New York’s Renaissance revival Morgan Library to refinishing high-end kitchens.
His specialty is decorative or faux finishing imitating some other wood or even marble. He describes this ancient art, which reached its zenith during the Italian Renaissance, as a form of conjuring. Showing a sample of prized tiger maple, with its characteristic flame pattern, Gedrys says the effect was actually produced with a brush. “Things aren’t always what they seem,” he says with a grin.
Gedrys’ latest project is a set of French Baroque furniture for the lobby of an old movie palace — the Lowes Kings Theater on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, which is undergoing a $70-million renovation. This lavish 3,676 seat moviehouse, designed by the noted firm of Rapp and Rapp, was one of Lowes’ so-called “Wonder Palaces,” combining Vaudeville acts with first-run movies. Dolores Del Rio was special guest for the opening in the fall of 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression.
After closing in 1977, the Kings Theater deteriorated for decades. Restoration began last year and work is expected to be completed in 2015.
“Movie theaters were destinations [in the 1920s],” says Gedrys, who also lives in East Haddam. “Everything was done to perfection.”
Gedrys points to a massive pair of carved chairs that looks like thrones with exquisite craftsmanship. “I thought they may have been German, but some friends who are knowledgeable about these things see a Russian influence,” he said.
For Gedrys the jewel of the collection is a Louis XV side table. “That’s the belle of the ball,” he exclaims, noting the carved scroll or wave pattern along the apron, in the business called a “Vitruvian wave.” Gedrys knows waves. He was once a surfer.
In those years his favorite surfing spot was Matunuck, R.I., south of Kingston, because the waves “always break to the right” and thus were easier to ride for his style of leading with his right foot.
Surfing is all about waiting for the right wave. Gedrys dreamed of becoming a marine biologist but his rough and ready personality wasn’t suited for the classroom. He trained to become a diver and for a decade worked rebuilding piers and bulkheads in New Haven and Bridgeport harbors. Then a construction slump led to a stretch of unemployment, and Gedrys took on a number of odd jobs. One was stripping old furniture for an antique dealer. Gedrys found himself in that work.
“I stripped dozens of roll top desks – they were in, in the 1980s,” he says. “I remember my first one; my boss couldn’t believe I did it so fast.”
Because restorers jealously guard their secrets, much of Gedrys’ knowledge has come from books. He devours texts on varnishes and shellacs the way others go through crime novels. Shellacs are a favorite topic. In talks on the subject, he loves revealing to his audience that the sticky substance is a secretion of the female lac bug, Kerria lacca, and commonly used as a coating on vitamin pills and candies. “We’ve all eaten shellac,” he says.
In his workshop in a restored barn, European classical music filters through the airy space. Gedrys is seated before a carved Baroque-style chair, from the theater group, showing the stress of the years. “How much is it going to cost? That’s the first question clients always want to know,” he says.
“I’m not being coy, but I can’t always give them an answer right away. You know what the gold on this chair is? Radiator paint! That was not a knowing hand. But I could bring this lady back. A little make-up in the right places might do it. I’m not sure. I have to let the pieces talk to me for a while. They’ll tell me what to do.”
For more of Peter Gedrys’ work log on to: http://www.petergedrys.com/