Diane Mastrull: Burnishing his business

John Hutchinson, owner of Rose Valley Restorations, works on a piece of furniture in his workshop. In the background is Steve Swann.
John Hutchinson, owner of Rose Valley Restorations, works on a piece of furniture in his workshop. In the background is Steve Swann. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

Restoration expert crafts a way through tough times.

Posted: September 26, 2011

Restoration has been John Hutchinson's passion since he spent three years in the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance as an apprentice to a Florentine master finisher.

For 16 years, the Media native has used that training to revive tired, scarred, or otherwise neglected antique and fine furniture.

For the last three years, his restorative efforts have had a more urgent focus: saving his business.

Antique-furniture dealers have been punished by the recession and the subsequent uninspiring recovery. Their suffering has been contagious, affecting affiliated businesses such as Hutchinson's Rose Valley Restorations in West Chester, named after the Delaware County community where he grew up.

Before the economy collapsed, 60 percent of Rose Valley's business came from dealers.

"It dropped to zero," Hutchinson, 41, Rose Valley's sole full-time employee, said in an interview last week in his workshop/gallery on Mechanics Alley. "No dealers were selling anything; no dealers were investing any money in product to get it to market."

That meant they didn't need Rose Valley's expertise in color, structure, carving, inlay, gilding, and paint.

Instead, private clientele has kept the company "afloat," Hutchinson said. That work has been mostly maintenance, as in a chair fixed or a table cleaned.

"Back in the day, we'd be refinishing 12- to 14-foot dining room tables, doing at least four or five a year," he recalled. "I don't think I did any for the two-year stretch prior to this year."

Rose Valley's base project price has gone from a prerecession $1,500 to $400. For the first time in five years, Hutchinson increased fees on restoration work - from $65 an hour to $75, largely to compensate for materials such as black walnut and plywood, whose prices have "skyrocketed" in recent years, he said.

Amid such business mayhem, Hutchinson did something he said many might consider crazy: He spent $100,000 on an all-brick former machine shop dating from 1860 in the heart of West Chester, and spent the last year renovating it. It is now Rose Valley's workshop, gallery, and storage site - thanks to family, not banks.

Hutchinson joined legions of small-business owners who have found little or no help from financial institutions recently.

"I had over 700 credit [rating], I have a house . . . a rental property, I own two vehicles outright, and I've got a quarter-million-dollar business in inventory and stock - and they still wouldn't give me the money," he said of a bank with which he had had a 12-year relationship.

Hutchinson had to enlist the help of his parents and sister to secure enough financing for the purchase and renovations. The new place allowed him to consolidate under one roof what had been scattered among three properties, thus reducing his costs.

Not that everything is going to happen there. Another lesson taught by the recession was the value of doing off-site work, such as a recently completed job at Community Arts Center in Wallingford.

Built in 1889, the center is in the former summer home of the Widener/Dixon family. Rose Valley was the winning bidder for $9,000 in renovations to the second-floor ballroom - an ornate expanse of wood wainscoting, windows, and fireplaces that is a favorite place for figure drawing and painting, said Deborah Yoder, executive director.

Though Yoder has known Hutchinson since he used to ride bikes with her daughter, Suzanne, more than 25 years ago, she said it was more than that connection that won him the work:

"He knows what he's doing, he does it well, and he does it with respect for the building, the artistry of the original building, and the people who are now using it."

His respect for what others have created is why Hutchinson is an unforgiving critic of PBS's Antiques Roadshow - specifically the numerous references on it to items having their original finish.

He contends his workroom is proof that extensive refinishing goes on in the world of antiques, a fact dealers are not eager to publicize.

So besides being an accomplished artisan, Hutchinson has to be a trustworthy confidant: "Some of the biggest and most beautiful pieces we've ever done, we can't talk about."

Hutchinson said he bore no responsibility if a dealer subsequently passed off furnishings he had worked on as being in original condition.

"When a piece leaves this building, that's not my judgment of where it goes or what happens," he said. "That's up to the client or the individual owner. Morally, I think that's the right business approach."

These days, he is just grateful to be in business. Four or five restorers within two miles of his shop have not been so fortunate, he said. Meanwhile, Rose Valley is coming off the best summer it has had in four years.

"We made it," Hutchinson said, knocking on wood. Not just any wood, of course.

It was a 1760s Philadelphia drop-leaf, triffid-foot walnut table, its hinges bearing the stamp of their Berks County maker: Hopewell Furnace.

Yours for $6,000.


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|