- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

In the world of antique carpet collectors, where snobs thrive along with big bank accounts, Leonardo Contardo is unusual. He doesn't claim to be a scholar yet he is thoroughly versed in the field.

He collects and occasionally sells old carpets the more used and abused, the better but the skill of which he is proudest is the job of washing them.

This is hardly an ordinary hobby, much less a way of life. It isn't your everyday cleaning job, either. He considers the task to be almost a spiritual undertaking. He works only when the mood is right.

"I never know when the spirit moves me. I wash with great love; when you wash a carpet, all the sins come out," he says.

Observing him amid the hundreds of carpets that fill his Old Town Alexandria, Va., home covering floors, chairs, walls and even window valances a layman might consider those words an understatement.

When the time is right, he puts thigh-high rubber boots over his work clothes, opens up the garage door of his home and turns the driveway into a laundry room. This happens only after he has given a carpet a thorough vacuuming to get rid of dust and stray particles.

Next, he lays the carpet or rug the term rug usually refers to a smaller-size carpet on the cement floor and gets down on his hands and knees with a brush and a large sponge beside a large plastic bucket full of liquid soap and water. A hose for rinsing sits nearby. A simple soaking won't do, he claims: "You've got to be careful of the dyes."

Part of the art is knowing the number of washings required to erase the dirt. Household help stuck with the task invariably never get deep enough into what he calls "the tar," which is congealed dirt that takes real elbow grease to dislodge. "Most people don't get down to the knot when they wash. You have to break that up to make the rug come to life."

"I don't want to give away all my secrets," he teases before admitting that a cup of white vinegar in the last rinse helps dissolve the soap.

Seeing such activity taking place on the pavement, passers-by cannot resist stopping to watch the show.

"I wish I had a dollar for every question I get asked," he says. "I'd give it to the Textile Museum" in the District of Columbia.

The next important step takes place out of public view when he carries a heavy newly washed carpet up four floors to the roof to dry in the sun.

Commercial dry cleaning involves forced heat that can harden the fabric, he believes.

"Drying them the natural way in the sunlight and open air gives carpets a much softer feel. It's how they are handled in the countries of origin."

He has built a wood-frame floor and railing to support the carpets, which may need no more than a few hours, or a day at most, to dry when the humidity is not too high.

The roof, which looks over the Alexandria waterfront to the Potomac River, the Wilson Bridge and the District beyond, "is also a good place to come in the evening and drink a martini," he notes dryly.

The interior of Mr. Contardo's home is a fantasy land out of Scheherazade, displaying intricate, colorful patterned rugs of all kinds Caucasian, Persian, Turkish and others serving a multitude of purposes.

Some considered too fragile for use have been framed behind glass backed by acid-free linen. A pile of folded carpets rests on a hassock in front of the living groom fireplace next to a Queen Anne chair upholstered in a kilim, a generic flat-woven rug without a nap that originated with the nomads. The oldest carpet in his collection is an 1880 Kashan from Persia.

An entire bathroom has been given over to storage, as well as a top floor studio where he does some basic repairs, such as filling in holes and tidying frayed ends. He recently converted one badly torn, worn early 20th-century Persian rug that looked ready for the trash bin into a square tablecloth, plus two smaller rectangular pieces that became decorative covers on the backs of chairs.

For expert professional restoration or repair, he recommends Felicia Radulescu, a specialist at Trocadero Oriental Rug & Textile Art, 2313 Calvert St. NW. The shop, in turn, sends carpets the collectibles to him for washing; he won't touch machine-made carpets or hand-woven carpets made after 1940 for fear the dyes will run. "You have to know the carpet," he says.

Mr. Contardo, who is 76 today, retired 20 years ago from Amtrak, where his main job was writing government contracts. His passion for antique carpets developed one day in 1960 while attending an estate sale in Minnesota. It was an epiphany for a fellow who had grown up in Duluth with linoleum on the floor.

"I couldn't take my eyes off this rug, a 19th-century Kirman from Persia," he says. "I couldn't believe carpet weaving could be such a fine art."

Soon he was buying out entire estate sales and learning about carpets by studying them, "looking at the technique of weaving." It soon seemed logical to learn to take care of them, too.

He doesn't advertise and is loath to quote a price for his services.

"I'm not in it for the money. I just want to have a good time," he says.

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