When walking on North Lee Street in fair weather, it's possible to hear a sound of scrubbing — not of bricks, but of something much softer. People may search several minutes for the source of the sound, and they will finally see it in Leonardo Contardo, who is on his hands and knees in his driveway, scrubbing a large carpet.
Joe Reeder, a longtime friend of Contardo, said he "is always pleasant to be around, unless you disturb him when he is washing a rug."
As important as "washing a rug" can be for him, that is just the beginning of Contardo's passion for carpets. He spends his days cleaning, mending and searching out antique carpets. He is a past chairman of the Textile Museum's International Rug Convention, is a member of the Oriental Rug Society and the Alexandria Association and a former member of the Textile Museum's Advisory Council. He has served as chairman of two Oriental Rug Exhibits; “Homage to the Hookers” and “Homage to the Weavers: Worn and Abused Carpets of the 19th Century” at the Athenaeum just for starters.
"Leonardo Contardo is as fine a person as there is in the rug profession," Lucy Hutchinson, the curator of Contardo's hooked rug show at the Athenaeum, said. "He is honest, professional, and knowledgeable; but, perhaps best of all, he is a superb interior decorator, washer and restorer of rugs.”
His skill has even led to some unofficial service to the City of Alexandria.
"He really believes in helping everyone with his complete and full understanding of Oriental carpets, he is very generous with his time and expertise," said Jean Taylor Federico, recently retired director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. "He always walked over to our place at Lloyd House right away when we had a problem with our carpets."
Contardo bought his first rug at an estate sale in 1960. He took the rug home and laid it out on the floor of his home in Alabama. As the sunshine crossed over the carpet, he got on his hands and knees touching the rug and looking closely at it with a magnifying glass. He was initially amazed that anyone would sell such a treasure at the price he paid for it. But more importantly, how could uneducated people weave such a carpet? He began reading and researching everything he could get his hands on about the carpets and the weavers. And his collecting began.
“I really like to find family carpets — carpets that have been handed down for generations and life has been lived out on them," Contardo said. "Most of the carpets would have been cleaned by the maids or the housekeeper. Almost always it would just have been the surface that was cleaned. The trick to bringing these carpets back to life is the clean both sides. The tar and dirt that has settled in the knots of the rug needs to be released. So I start by soaping up the rug and letting it sit for a while before scrubbing.”
After an appropriate time the scrubbing begins on the back, then a clean rinse and repeat on the nap side of the carpet and another rinse until the water runs clear.
The carpet is rolled up and carried through the three floors of the townhouse to the deck on the roof. The carpet is laid out and dried face up in the sun. On a clear, warm day, most large carpets will dry in a day’s time. The carpet is then brought back in and taken to the workroom.
Contardo carefully examines the rugs for any damage and repairs what he can. Carpets with tears and other wounds of wear are shipped off to the restorers in New York City for reweaving.
Contardo is also a carpet broker. Clients from all over the country call him to wash and repair their carpets and or find them the perfect carpet for a room. Fabric samples are sent and dropped off to him. “The beauty of these carpets, particularly the tribal rugs is color, color and more color," Contardo said.
He will want to visit the place where the carpet will lay before beginning a new search. Armed with that information and a figure of how much may be spent, he will check with dealers and come up with potential matches. With the hand-washing of rugs, some are rejected because the dyes are not fast. Some reds in particular are ‘natural’ dyes and will bleed into the other colors and if it is near the edge, the red may move out to the fringe. Knowing the source and area of the world the rug was made, it can be determined what kinds of dyes were used originally to color the wool.
Kay Logan, who lives next door to Contardo, can testify that fine carpets are not the only thing he can sell.
"I had decided to move to Old Town from Warren, Penn. and had flown in to look at several houses the Realtor and I had been corresponding about," Logan said. "The first one was at 411 North Lee. As we approached the door I could scarcely fail to notice a white-haired gentleman in yellow rubber duckies scrubbing what appeared to me to be an Oriental rug in his driveway."
After a few minutes of conversation with Contardo, Logan and the real estate agent went through the Lee Street house and then left to view others. Hours later, trying to make a decision, Logan asked to return to Lee Street.
"The rug scrubber was still hard at work and this time he followed us into the house and proceeded to point out its positive features," Logan said. "I decided to purchase the Lee Street house and always kidded the Realtor that she should give Leonardo a commission. He is indeed the world's best neighbor and I made a very wise choice. I'm still constantly amazed when I see him start to work on a dark and unattractive rug — only to look out an hour later to see that wonderful colors have appeared."
"The truth is that one has no idea what will happen when Leonardo appears at your door," Richard Moose, a friend of Contardo's. Moose recounted a story about a time Contardo had some advice for Moose and his wife Margaret.
"Leonardo sought to convince my wife to move a couple of major pieces of furniture and two large rugs. She demurred, but then left on an errand," Moose said.
"Leonardo hung around and pressed his argument with me. He is so infectious in his enthusiasms that I soon found myself his accomplice in the complete rearrangement of our living room. Leonardo and I were enormously pleased with our handiwork, but when Margaret returned home, she was not. So Leonardo and I put the furniture back where it belonged. And then Maggie and I bought another beautiful rug."
Alexandria businessman Joe Egerton could have warned Richard and Margaret Moose about Contardo's artistic tendencies.
"Leonardo has the true Italian gift for choosing the perfect rug for any room," Egerton said. "His choice of design and color to fit your decor is unbelievable. He'll even rearrange the room to suit the rug. As a true artist, he never asks permission to rearrange your things — he just does it."