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West Side Rowing Club seeks to preserve its history

Silk was a popular material for the popular celebratory banners used by churches, clubs and sports groups a century ago, and with good reason.

“It dyes well – you get really, really bright colors,” said Professor Jonathan Thornton of SUNY Buffalo State’s Art Conservation Department. “They used silk a lot. It’s beautiful.”

Silk made the banners brilliant, and it also made them vulnerable. Members of the West Side Rowing Club found that out Friday when they took a trove of seven historic victory banners to the campus for evaluation and possible restoration.

The news wasn’t great.

“When silk goes, it’s gone,” Thornton said as he and some students evaluated the tattered trophies.

The banners, representing six club victories plus a homespun “Gold Star” flag, were damaged by smoke and water in a 1975 fire. Then they became the subject of an intramural tussle over their possession for 40 years. The club finally won the banners back from the estate of a disgruntled club member in State Supreme Court this summer.

When the members took possession, however, they were surprised at what they found.

Although the banners purportedly had been restored by a now-deceased club member after the fire, several still are stained with black smudges. Thornton even detected a whiff of smoke.

Worst of all, the fabric in most is in various stages of fraying and decay.

Gabriel Ferber, a lawyer and club member, said West Side is most interested in preserving the club’s oldest banner, won in 1913, a year after its founding.

“We actually have a photograph of the four kids who won this, and we’d like to encase it with that photograph,” Ferber told Thornton.

That first banner is also the largest and the most distinctive. About 2- by 3-feet, it is a vivid scarlet with gold lettering and an image celebrating the Perry Centennial painted in the center. The picture is peeling but largely intact.

Thornton, who said his group sees a lot of banners from this period, said the handpainted banner was very professional and well made. Although the restoration job was beyond what his students wanted to take on, he was able to refer the club to two former students who have turned banner work into a speciality.

He was less encouraging about the other banners.

“The silk is shattering. There’s nothing to be done about that. These just need to be stored in the dark,” he said.

Ferber said he appreciated the honesty, but felt the club still might put the banners on display for as long as they last, to show its young athletes their history.

“I don’t know the benefit to us of putting these in boxes,” he said. “We’re not a museum. We’re a rowing club.”