By Lisa G. McCurdy
Walk into any of Newport’s historic homes and look up. Above the doors, along the walls and on the ceiling you’ll find ornamental flowers, figures and scrolls, often culminating in a central medallion, and all sculpted from plaster. While most of the original work was created during the Gilded Age, its current luster can be attributed to one man, Ken Wildes of Joshua & Co.
Wildes’ experience with plaster began in the 1970s, as a plasterer for a builder, before going out on his own with a drywall and plaster company. It wasn’t until the early ’90s, when economic reductions in the residential construction market forced him to rethink his vocation, that Wildes turned to more decorative work. “One day, my wife and I visited Rosecliff,” he says. “I looked up and I thought, ‘I can do this.’” He practiced the craft for about three years and decided to close his drywall business and go into ornamental work.
Much of his local practice has been restoration, where water damage is the common culprit. Wildes uses modern materials to replicate the original work and is so good at it that he claims no one can tell the difference.
To fashion ornate medallions, cornice moldings and other decorative accents, Wildes will make sketches and fabricate templates and molds. Starting with a sketch based heavily on math — a subject Wildes jokes was not his forte in school — he begins to create, or re-create, the intricate designs. “I’ll go in and take photos of the work, and if it’s highly ornamented, I’ll try to remove some of the elements that exist or make molds of what’s in place,” Wildes says. When working from scratch, he will build the molds or templates by hand. Between molds he’s taken from restorations and those he’s made himself, Wildes estimates he has more than 2,500 different prototypes to work off of.
But that’s not all there is to it. There are all of the intricate details, like flowers, leaves, birds and shells, that have to be added. Here, Wildes’ high school background with pottery comes into play. “I make all of my roses, for example, by hand out of clay, and then put them into a kiln,” he says, adding that he never suspected his youthful interest in sculpture would end up being a foundation for his career.
Today, Wildes works alongside his son, Ken Jr., on historic buildings and private residences, both in Newport and coast to coast. In early 2020, Joshua & Co. completed a restoration of the BankNewport building on Washington Square. The building has three ceiling sections — a center ceiling and two mirrored alcoves off to the sides. “The owners of the bank wanted to add three chandeliers where originally there was just one,” Wildes says. “I had to redesign [the alcoves] in my own interpretation, so that three chandeliers could be installed and make it look like they had always been there. It was a little restoration and a little bit of my own capabilities.”
In Newport, ornamental plaster is not limited to just the historic buildings open to the public or the large private estates on Ocean Drive. Many smaller historic homes boast plaster detailing, or are built in a style where these accents could be appropriate adornments. With delicate details on your walls and ceiling, you’ll be prepared to join the ranks of Mrs. Astor’s “400,” even if you’re just entertaining a friend or two for dinner.