The John Greenwalt Lee Company: A Unique Approach to Conservation of Architectural Heritage

John Greenwalt Lee, owner

Complete Conservation Services include conditions assessments focused on cause and effect, in-place mockups of proposed repairs that are recorded for inclusion in specifications, planning and management of projects, as well as training of craftsmen. Recommendations are presented with the goal of educating clients.

John Lee has been a craftsman and conservator of objects and buildings for 35 years. He began his career at age 17 with a series of apprenticeships in antique musical instrment (ProMuscia, Michael Thomas) and furniture restoration (Arpad, Theodore Potthast Co), as well as patternmaking (Danko Arlington), before opening his own shop at age 24 during the 1973 recession.

The John Greenwalt Lee Company began as a cabinetmaking shop replicating 17th-19th century furniture, as well as building unique furniture and interiors for top design firms (Robert AM Stern, Index, Interspace). Within the first year, conservation work at the Hammond Harwood House in Annapolis, Md. drew widespread acclaim and interest from the adolescent preservation field, and the firm was increasingly drawn to focus on the development of conservation technology and training of contractors in the unique skills required for preserving original material.

Above-ground Archaeology,

Construction History &

Conditions Assessments

Field Analysis, Microscopy


With a wide range of artisan skills and a broad background in practical techniques to analyze building problems, the John Greenwalt Lee Company is well known for devising minimally-invasive repairs. Documentation is often of limited use in educating clients or saving buildings. This firm's reports provide clear explanations of underlying causes and options for practical remediation that allow building owners to make appropriate decisions. The focus on underlying causes is geared toward long-term solutions working within giving budgets, or are broken down into incremental approaches that allow for project and budget planning in phases, working from stabilization through conservation.

Historic buildings have in many cases suffered considerably during the twentieth century due to rapid changes in the trades, making it increasingly difficult for modern contractors to understand historic building systems. Assessments, planning, and training must include education about technology and materials used in original construction and explanations of how modern materials are often incompatible. John Lee has spent decades working first in wood, then masonry, and increasingly with metal and finishes, seeking to understand the physcial and chemical processes that make buildings work or fail, why materials behave as they do, how they can be manipulated, and the complex forces that cause failure.

This background allows for "one-off" solutions for each historic building, recognizing that each is unique and reflects the skills of its builder, materials and techniques common to the time of its construction, aesthetics of the original owner and architect, and a variety of alterations and repairs of varying skill throughout its existence.

The firm has been a leader of in-situ timber and masonry conservation methods. The timber repair methods often allow heavily-deteriorated timbers, or at a minimum, their tooled surfaces, the remain in service. These techniques include the integration of modern technology and materials with historic, but always maintain the goals of preservation to carry out repairs that are compatible, and wherever possible, reversible. Masonry stabilization includes in-place realignment as opposed to teardown-and-repair practices, bicarbonate consolidation of friable mortars, and the development of techniques for lime putty-based reattachment of loose plasters and stuccoes.

Materials Conservation

Unlike many firms that focus on "in-kind" replacements, the John Greenwalt Lee Company is focused on creating furniture-type repairs that are the least invasive for each object or building. The goal is repairs that are not only durable, but that also allow elements to continue functioning within a building as originally designed. In contrast to the common view that preservation is expensive, the firm has consistently proven otherwise by educating clients, structuring projects to focus first on underlying problems, conducting mockups of repairs on the building that cover each of the recommended treatments to determine process and materials, integrating documentation from mockups as part of bid documents, and integrating trainging of local contractors.


John Greenwalt Lee resume

(160kb PDF)

"Your blend of craftsmanship and scientific knowledge I feel is a rare commodity and is ideally suited to historic houses which are trying to preserve their buildings, but to also have them function as museums and places for educational experiences. So often during a complicated preservation project, an historic house director finds himself caught between many members of the team, all with seemingly valid points of view. That is why I have come to rely upon your advice and mediation to help find the best solution. It is also why Wyck keeps coming back to you for all of our projects."

– Jeff Groff, Director, Wyck House Association, Philadelphia, PA, 2000