Story of the Fort Ross Chandelier
By Robin Joy – State Park Interpreter I
Fort Ross has so many wonderful stories of reconstruction, research efforts, archaeology, and of reproducing items of the past. The beautiful, yet very simple chandelier, which hangs in the Fort Ross chapel, is a true work of art. Mr. Robert Fennell, the maker of this beautiful chandelier, tells the story of this authentic reproduction on a recent visit to Fort Ross State Historic Park.
Mr. Petrovich (Peter) Kostromitinov, the 'new manager' at the Ross Colony, brought the original chandelier, and a three-candle brass wall sconce for use in his assigned residence, (today known as the Kuskov House) to Fort Ross in 1828.
When he arrived at Ross, the newly built chapel had no adornments. He had the chandelier hung in the cupola of the chapel and the brass wall sconce was hung in his residence, (The Kuskov House). When the Colony’s goods were sold to John Sutter in 1841, the chandelier was returned to Mr. Kostromitinov. When Mr. Kostromitinov returned to Siberia he gave the chandelier and the wall sconce to his sister. Many years later these treasures were in possession of a grand niece, Julie Bolman, the last to inherit them. She lived in San Francisco with her husband Mr. Angelo Duperu. When Ms. Bolman Duperu died, Mr. Dupero hung on to the special items. When he remarried, the second wife, Judith Duperu was also very interested in Fort Ross. They lived in Bolinas and visited Fort Ross quite often.
In 1956, Mr. John McKenzie and Alice his wife visited the Dupero’s at their home. The chandelier and the wall sconce came up in discussion. The Duperos asked if they thought The California State Parks and Fort Ross would be interested in having them back. And of course John and Alice said yes.
From 1956 to 1969 these items were in the chapel and treasured items by all visitors. In 1969 the chandelier was stolen but somehow miraculously showed up back at the fort. It was then placed in the attic of the Rotchev house for safekeeping. When the chapel burned down to the ground, the chandelier was not damaged as it was in the Rotchev house attic. Sadly, it was damaged in the fire of July 1971 in the Rotchev house.
The damaged chandelier was retrieved. In 1978 they found Mr. Robert Fennell, a skillful brass worker, who agreed to replace the unit. His father was Mr. Gerald Fennell, an expert in designing chandeliers, wall sconces, and other fancy lighting fixtures. Robert and Eugene made a perfect duo. His interest in doing this project came from his love of Fort Ross, the coast’s' history, and from his family's past. His grandfather was an early California historian and a master craftsman and artist who worked on the restored Old Mission Dolores in San Francisco.
The chandelier was a real challenge for these gentlemen. They used the undamaged parts of the chandelier as patterns for the molds so a new unit could be cast. Each piece was unique. The six slim curved metal arms which radiate from the center of the chandelier hold the six candle cups, fit into individually made notches in the central shaft of the chandelier, but these notches are not identical and the arms may not be switched from one arm to another. The central brass rod which runs from a fancy knob through all the parts of the central block form the top of the chandelier is held in place by a simple carefully tapered brass pin at the top of the chandelier. Remove the pin and it will all come apart.
They took the best fixture arm, candleholder, and base cup from the damaged original fixture. After a series of making molds for each piece, and than making wax castings from these molds, the wax reproductions were placed in stainless steel flasks, which were than filled with a special casting plaster material and allowed to harden, than placed into a kiln to melt the wax out and cure the molds at 1100 degrees. This takes several hours. The flasks were then removed from the kiln and the required molten metal, a type of mixed bronze, was then poured into the flasks, allowed to harden and cool. The bronze castings were removed from the flasks, cleaned, polished and finished. This makes for an exact reproduction of the original copied pieces.
Before the casting was done, a small section of an original piece was sent out to analyze the metal content. Thus the original metal was also duplicated. Each finished part was polished, assembled, and waxed. In all there were 30 individual parts that were duplicated. In 1979, this exact reproduction was hung at the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church at Fort Ross celebrating their 54th annual pilgrimage to Fort Ross for services in the chapel on July fourth.
The chandelier is a real treasure at Fort Ross. Next time you visit the chapel take a few minutes to really appreciate the craftsmanship on this piece. On behalf of Fort Ross State Historic Park, we thank Mr. Bob Fennell for his work on this chandelier, and for the assistance on this article.