Thursday, October 18, 2012

What color was the Old Senate Chamber?

This is one of the many questions often asked by visitors to the Old Senate Chamber, and it is one being scrutinized by the project team working on the restoration. In a room that has experienced so many architectural changes in its 233-year history, there is no easy answer to the question of what is "original" to the room. Beginning with this entry, we will begin to examine many of the architectural elements and finishes currently in the space and provide insights into what we do, or do not, know about each of them. 

c. 1905
Color postcard of the Restored Old Senate Chamber
Postcards Of Maryland State House Grounds Collection
MSA SC 2215-21
Since the room was restored in 1905, the walls have only been painted in three different colors: a "colonial" green in 1905, modeled after John Trumbull's 1824 painting of General George Washington Resigning his Commission; white in the mid-twentieth century; and Prussian blue in the late 1990s.

So are any of these colors original to the eighteenth century?
To answer this question, we must look at the niche, the only area in the entire room that retains its original eighteenth century decorative plaster and paint finishes. As discussed in an earlier entry, the 1870s renovations removed all of the eighteenth century paint and plaster from the space, largely obliterating the eighteenth century finishes and replacing them with various shades of brown and green. The exception was the niche, which was plastered over and thus spared from destruction. 

Layers of original paint visible in the Niche, Old Senate Chamber.
Photo courtesy of Lori Livingston, 2012

We are incredibly fortunate to have the complete paint history of the niche, particularly due to the sophisticated science of paint analysis. By studying a small sliver of paint under an optical microscope, scientists can glean an extraordinary amount of information about the types of paint that were used and estimate the age of each layer.

In the late 1990s, Susan Buck, a leading expert in the field of paint conservation and analysis, discovered a layer of Prussian blue paint in the niche. This was a very popular color in the eighteenth century that can be seen in many fashionable rooms at the time, most notably Mount Vernon. Convinced this was the original color, the walls were repainted and remained that hue until 2007 when the plaster was removed from the room.

Paint sample from the Niche, Old Senate Chamber.
Courtesy of Richard Wolbers, 2010

More recently, techniques pioneered by Richard Wolbers at Winterthur now allow for the removal of individual layers of paint. These techniques have enabled the discovery of earlier finishes under the Prussian blue, which reveal that the Old Senate Chamber was most likely plastered and painted to have the appearance of stone. This was probably achieved by applying  an initial base coat of a light yellow and then covered with a pigmented glaze. The glaze was then stippled on, thus creating a darkened finish with an irregular pattern that mimicked the organic texture of stone.

Currently, research is ongoing to conclusively determine the original eighteenth century finishes of the niche and other walls in the State House. Stay tuned! We will make sure to provide updates with any new information or evidence found. 

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