Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Old Senate Chamber Relics Photo—Too Good To Be True?

The circumstances surrounding the creation of the Detroit Photographic Company image captioned “Relics in Museum, U.S. Naval Academy” (Fig. 1) are far more mysterious than the contents of the photo itself.
Figure 1: Photograph of Relics in Museum
Courtesy of the Library of Congress det 4a15044 LC-D4-21356
The four pieces pictured are clearly architectural fragments, and the label certainly identifies them as coming from the gallery in the Senate Chamber. A closer examination, however, employing the archaeological techniques used by architectural historians to decipher the construction dates of historic buildings, can help us take away more than just those few facts.

The Maryland State House, as a large public building, is associated with an extensive documentary record that provides much of the information we wish to know about it: we know who built it and why; we know who designed it; we know how much some of the work cost and when it was built; and we know how it was used. But even with that vast amount of information, there are many things we don’t know. Much of the lack of evidence relates to the appearance of the original finish of the State House; there are no surviving construction drawings, nor any detailed descriptions about the building’s original finish. The 1770s’ interior of the Senate Chamber was demolished when the State House was renovated in the 1870s, leaving us with many questions, a few photographs of interior spaces and this very frustrating relics photo. It frustrates us because although it tells us that pieces of the Old Senate Chamber were preserved after the 1870s demolition, we haven’t yet found any of the fragments.

Despite not having the relics in our hands, the photo can still provide a lot of information if we ask the right questions. The first questions to ask: can we take the label at face value? Are these fragments of the gallery of the Senate Chamber? The gallery was a change order, meaning that it was added to the room after construction had begun, but before building was finished. To save time and money, its decoration was executed in plaster, not carved in wood. We also know that the finished product exceeded the expectations of the state-appointed committee that reviewed the work and that the chamber’s ornament was described by more than one by eighteenth-century visitor as the finest in America. The fragments in the photo seem to bear this out. They are plasterwork of very high quality; no problem there.

There is something about the fragments that raises a flag, however. They appear to break into two groups. The large fragment on the left is very white and its details very crisp, while the other two plaster fragments and the wooden pieces look dirty and worse for the wear. Why the difference? Like architectural Sherlock Holmeses we must bring our investigative skills to bear to answer the question. The game is afoot!

The three pieces on the right consist of two chunks of plaster decoration and a wooden framework. The framework, or armature (Fig 2), is built of three large pieces of wood to which are nailed lath—small strips of wood meant to support plaster; bits of broken plaster can still be seen between the laths in the middle of the armature. Sitting to the left of the armature is a fragment of a volute or scroll from an Ionic column capital (Fig. 3). Resting on top of the armature is a piece of a plaster cornice that is turned upside down (Fig. 4). The materials of these three relics are very informative.

Figure 2: Armature from the plaster entablature of the gallery.

The lath of the armature is riven—that is, split from a timber, not sawn, and it is affixed to the underlying timbers by hand-wrought iron nails. The large irregular heads of the nails give that away. The nails seen at the corners of the wood framing the cornice fragment are also wrought. 

Figure 3: Plaster volute (rotated to appear upright)

The plaster of the volute and cornice is laid up in two layers, a thick, coarse undercoat that can be seen along the edges of the cornice fragment and a finer finish coat which forms the detail of the pieces. The double layer of plaster indicates that the pieces are executed in lime plaster, and second that they have been painted or lime-washed a number of times suggesting some age.

Figure 4: Large plaster fragment from the entablature of the gallery (rotated to appear upright) 

These clues add up to tell us that these three pieces date to before 1800. Riven lath was used in Maryland until the Civil War, but it is used less and less frequently after 1830. Lime plaster was almost universal in the 18th and early 19th centuries, being replaced by gypsum plaster at the turn of the 20th century. But the real indicator of date is the wrought nails; beginning in the 1790s, wrought lathing nails are replaced by machine-made nails that have noticeably smaller heads.

The style of the plaster fragments suggest an even more precise date. The details are very similar to the plaster work seen in the large houses constructed in Annapolis in the late 1760s and 1770s: the John Brice House, the Chase-Lloyd House, Ogle Hall and the Hammond-Harwood House. Some details are identical and may suggest that the same workmen executed the work. 

By contrast, the materials seen in the large, white fragment on the left of the photo indicate that it is of more recent vintage (Fig. 5).

Figure 5: Plaster mock-up for the 1905 restoration of the gallery (rotated to appear upright)

The lath of this piece was cut with a circular saw, a technology that doesn’t appear in Maryland until the middle of the 1840s. The plaster appears to be entirely gypsum plaster, the hard, fine ornamental finishing plaster that did not become widely used until the turn of the 20th century, when new production processes reduced its cost. The visible nail heads are small, suggesting the nails are machine-made.

So we have three pieces of early plaster work and a very late 19th-century one. The identification label is affixed to one of the early fragments, and there is nothing visible in the material and details of that fragment and the other two like it that suggests the fragments are not what the tag claims: fragments of the 1770s gallery.

But what is the later piece? The materials suggest that the fragment dates no earlier than the 1890s, which is the likely date of the photograph. The 1890s is also the decade when architect J. Appleton Wilson was conducting research for the 1905 restoration of the Old Senate Chamber. The details of this fragment are identical to the 1905 restored gallery entablature and this fragment was likely a mock-up to show Wilson’s design.

In a future blog post we will examine just what these fragments tell us about the 1770s chamber and the 1905 restoration.

No comments:

Post a Comment