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Chief Justice John Marshall's robe returned to Richmond: 'This is a witness piece'

Posted at 10:51 AM, Apr 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-24 08:50:41-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Behind burly brick walls at the corner of Ninth and Leigh Streets, a delicate dance unfolds.

It is a homecoming ten years in the making.

At the John Marshall House, a tangible link to the early days of our Republic returns to Richmond.

“It is definitely a sense of reverence,” Jennifer Hurst-Wender, with Preservation Virginia, said. "It is a national icon. I’ve been anticipating this moment for a decade."

The Chief Justice credited with shaping the U.S. Supreme Court donned this very robe sitting on the bench.

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“This is a witness piece. There are so many court cases he would have been presiding over while wearing this,” Hurst-Wender said. “There are sweat stains and hair pomade, so it is exceptionally tangible.”

But more than two centuries of wear, tear, and time took its toll.

Howard Sutcliffe was contracted to save the robe from extinction.

“It was in pretty poor condition. It was folded in a smallish box,” Sutcliffe said.

For ten months the conservator worked on the silk garment at his office in Alabama.

“There are a lot of things going against it,” Sutcliffe said. “They basically deteriorate until you get a box of dust so.”

Sutcliffe said if no action is taken aging fabric like Marshall’s robe can vanish.

The native of England was tasked with shoring up at least five previous attempts to conserve Marshall’s robe.

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“Of the natural fibers, silk is probably the most susceptible to environmental damage,” Sutcliffe said.

Sutcliffe has preserved a wide range of artifacts from the Russian Royal Family to Kermit the Frog.

“It definitely had a personal connection,” Sutcliffe said. “Things like that can’t help but affect you.”

Jennifer Hurst-Wender called John Marshall one of the most important figures in American history.

“It's going to be stabilized for future generations,” Hurst-Wender said. “This piece has been a part of our collection since we opened to the public more than 100 years ago.”

Serving in the Revolutionary War and as Secretary of State before leading the Supreme Court from 1801 till his death in 1835.

“To see it now positioned in all of its glory it is just exceptional,” Hurst-Wender said.

The priceless artifact will go on display in a state-of-the-art case built especially for the robe.

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“Looks pretty good for 200 years,” Sutcliffe said. “Hopefully what I have done will make sure that it gets to the next pair of hands 50 years down the line.”

For those charged with preserving John Marshall’s legacy, the judgment is in. Welcoming the refurbished robe was well worth the wait.

“It gives you butterflies,” Hurst-Wender said. “It is like a birthday present and Christmas present all rolled into one absolutely.”

You can see Chief Justice John Marshall’s robe up close and personal. The artifact is now on display at the museum.

Next year the robe will move to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture for an extended stay.

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