WAYNE — A child-sized room nestled under the eaves of a village home — the “Alice Room,” and its rabbit hole — has hosted tea parties for the town’s youngest residents for 40 years.

Grace Burleigh, 99, who has donated 17 gypsum wallboard panels with Alice in Wonderland paintings from 1932 to the Wayne Library Association, is pictured with Mad Hatter Committee members Cynthia Pelliccia, left, and Holly Stevenson in Burleigh’s home on April 19. The Mad Hatter Committee, formed by the library association, is responsible for coordinating the preservation of the paintings and creation of a replica Alice Room like the one in Burleigh’s home. Kennebec Journal photo by Abigail Austin

To make sure the “Alice Room” would be a venue for many more tea parties, Grace Burleigh has donated the wall panels from her home — adorned with images characters from “Alice in Wonderland” since 1932 — to the Wayne Library Association.

“I wanted the ‘Alice Room’ to last,” said Burleigh, who is 99.

In 1932, when the home was under different ownership, artist and architect Alfred T. Merian painted scenes from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” for his mother when he redesigned the house.

“This is the version from which he took the paintings,” said Burleigh, showing a hardcover edition illustrated by John Tenniel. “They are absolutely identical to this version of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’”

Burleigh, who moved to Maine from New York when she was 60, hosted tea parties for “little ones” simply to see children appreciate the room.

“I went out once a week to help the (Pooh Bear) Nursery School teacher,” Burleigh said. “She liked to have me read to the children. I would read stories and get them ready for lunch. I showed them how to set a table and all that kind of stuff, so they knew me, and I knew them.”

On a rainy day — a day when kids had a tendency to become bored or agitated, as Burleigh knew from being a mother of two boys, and a grandmother and great-grandmother to 36 — she called the Pooh Bear Nursery School down the street and invited the teachers to bring the children to her house to see the “Alice Room.”

This was the first of many visits by nursery-schoolers and individual families made to the “Alice Room.” Over time, Burleigh offered a tea party as part of the visit, serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (to the dismay of one child who wanted peanut butter and fluff — “I thought he’d never stop crying,” said Burleigh) and a showing of an “Alice in Wonderland” production that her husband recorded on VHS from the Public Broadcasting Station.

“I used to bring my children to tea parties at Grace’s,” said Holly Stevenson, a Wayne resident and member of Friends of Cary Memorial Library, whose children are now adults.

“It’s very special,” she said. “especially because that room is so small, so I think (children) really felt like it was a special kids’ room.’

The room was a feature of the 2013 Wayne Home Tour.

One of the 17 gypsum wallboard painted panels that has been removed from the wall of the “Alice Room” in the home of Grace Burleigh in Wayne. Burleigh, who is 99, donated the panels, painted in 1932, to the Wayne Library Association. They will be restored and put into a replica Alice Room at the carriage house at the William’s House. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Pelliccia

The Wayne Library Association, which oversees the Cary Memorial Library and the Williams House, will recreate the “Alice Room” in the Williams House’s attached carriage barn to continue hosting tea parties and other children’s events that would now be part of library programming.

But moving the paintings and creating a new room isn’t that simple.

First the Mad Hatter Committee, formed by the library association to oversee the project, had to determine if the donation was worth moving. Maine State Museum curators Laurie LeBar and Angela Goebel-Bain visited the “Alice Room,” determining that the artwork was worth preserving.

Then the paintings had to be taken out of Burleigh’s house. They were painted directly onto the gypsum wallboard — sometimes over nails — said Stevenson.

Moving those 17 gypsum panels would take precision and time — a task that was completed almost suddenly as the Mad Hatter Committee found a brief December 2018 timetable for a a small group of nationally-renowned conservators to dismantle the panels.

“Everyone who came (to dismantle the panels) was very enthusiastic,” Burleigh said. “I felt if I ever touched that room, I’d be put out!”

Over five days, conservators Nina Roth-Wells of Georgetown, Ronald Harvey of Tuckerbrook Conservation in Lincolnville and assistant Scott Mosher dismantled the panels delicately.

“They didn’t know when they took that off the wall that maybe it would be a pile of dust because of what it was made of,” said Cynthia Pelliccia, who is also a member of the Mad Hatter Committee, as well as a library volunteer and member of Friends of Cary Memorial Library.

“It’s like a fascinating miracle they got them off the wall without anything happening to them,” she said.

Once the panels were dismantled, stabilized and stored in crates, they were transported to the Williams House for storage until, one by one, each of the panels can undergo a preservation that will maintain its pigmentation and prevent deterioration.

“(Harvey) told me that there are these treasures hidden away in Maine homes, and nobody gets to see them,” said Stevenson. “He was so enthusiastic that Grace wanted to share it.”

Burleigh said that she has received support from her family about the donation, except from one granddaughter, who considered the Wayne house her second home when she stayed with Burleigh during a high school summer.

“It’s a bone of contention,” said Burleigh. “My granddaughter is disappointed I did that.”

She understands the reality of her age, however, and that the house will likely not remain in the family.

“(The ‘Alice Room’) will be available to so many more people now,” Burleigh said.

The first panel is expected to be returned from the conservator in May, in time for Burleigh’s centennial birthday on June 11. An open house will take place at the Williams House in June.

“I’m glad the Alice panel will be back,” said Burleigh.

The timeline for the when the recreated “Alice Room” will open is still unknown, but members of the Mad Hatter Committee think it will be a year.

An anonymous donation started the project, according to Stevenson, enabling the Mad Hatters to hire the conservators. She said there also have been additional donations; the Mad Hatter Committee has applied for two grants and will write an appeal letter to help fund the project.

Once the panels are conserved, they will be installed in the recreated “Alice Room.” The carriage house will require upgrades to accommodate the project, including making it Americans With Disabilities Act compliant and weatherproof.

A rabbit hole like the one in the original “Alice Room” will also be recreated.  The rabbit hole in Burleigh’s original “Alice Room” is a tiny closet below the shortest part of the room under the eaves.


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