Mount Vernon Conservation
Between 1885 and 1980 the room was redecorated 15 more times with the walls and ceiling taking colors as diverse as pure white, light blue, and dark tan.
Uncovering the Past
In 1980 the overmantel was the subject of a six-month campaign of conservation, when the failing plaster was stabilized and most of the paint from the ornamentation was removed. At the same time, the room was repainted to approximate the verdigris green color that was found on the walls and cornice under 17 to 24 other layers of paint.
Matthew Mosca of Baltimore, one of the pioneers of the then-new discipline of microscopic paint analysis, undertook this work for the MVLA. Due to technological limitations, the paint color applied at the time was slightly bluer than the color Washington had originally specified.
Many advances have been made in historic paint research since 1980, and it was determined that as part of the current project we, the resident restoration staff, would remove the 1980 paint and try to replicate more closely the original green. We wanted to replace that color, though very bright for modern tastes, to restore the house to its appearance in 1799, the year of Washington's death.
We invited in two consultants, Susan Buck and Andrew Ladygo, respected experts in their fields, to help us develop a thorough conservation strategy.
Buck worked on the paint chronologies, and Ladygo inspected the plaster and developed a consolidant for the ceiling. Together they also inspected the room to identify the causes of the deterioration and to locate historically sensitive material such as large areas of original finishes and sections of original plaster.
Stripping Down the Layers
The first phase of the project was to remove the top four or five layers of paint out of the 12 or so that covered the ornaments on the ceiling. By removing only a few of the paint layers, we were able to reveal many of the intricate details, while still preserving the earliest paint evidence for future study.
The paint was stripped using a chemical paint stripper specially formulated by Buck, in combination with a wide variety of mechanical devices, such as dental picks, small scrapers, and stiff bristled brushes.
Four months of work and about eight gallons (30 liters) of paint stripper were required to remove paint from the ornaments, but the resulting outcome was remarkable. For the first time in over a century, the many original details of the ornamentation could be seen with astonishing clarity. Even the veining on the individual leaves was visible.
After the ornaments were released from the excess layers of paint, we focused attention on the ceiling itself. Because that plaster was in worse condition than the ornaments — it was actually starting to crumble and drop off — almost all the paint had to be removed to enable the plaster to be consolidated.
A paint removal system was developed that used several different paint strippers in concert with gentle scraping. A special heat-activated liquid vinyl was also used to reattach the unstable and delaminating areas of plaster before stripping.
The result was that we uncovered almost 95 percent of the ceiling with little or no loss of original plaster. We took a similar approach with the cornice. We stripped only a portion of the paint layers on the molded ornaments, while entirely exposing the original plaster in the field, or flat area.
During the course of the project we uncovered hidden details including the original layout lines inscribed by the "French Stucco Man" in 1775. These were particularly exciting to find because the details had not been seen in more than 225 years, and they showed exactly how the ornaments were applied.
A typical historic plaster system is made out of three coats: a base or scratch coat, a brown coat, and a finish coat which contains less sand and gives the wall its smooth finish. When we removed the delaminating paint from around the ornaments we discovered that before installing the cornice ornaments, the stucco craftsman had traced out the general pattern of the decoration on the wet finish coat.
After casting the ornaments, he installed them by spreading a small amount of wet gypsum on their backs and sticking them to the finish coat. This was a common method for attaching gypsum and plaster ornaments to a plaster background. It was the same technique we used to attach the new plaster leaves to the ceiling.
Restoring 18th Century Detail
After all the paint was removed, the ceiling was ready for consolidation and restoration. We conducted several rounds of testing before finding an effective water-based consolidant that would fuse the crumbling plaster together and still be safe enough to be used with visitors in the mansion.
After consolidation, we patched the larger holes in the plaster with a traditional lime/sand mixture; the smaller cracks received several coats of a gypsum-based restoration filler. New ornaments were also cast, molded, or carved to fit the spaces left by the missing sections of stuccowork.
When the ceiling had been completely restored it was painted with a glue-based distemper that not only replicates the appearance of a lime wash, but also is easily removed with warm water.
To ensure that future generations would be able to distinguish the new materials from the older areas, we documented the work using Arcview, computer-aided-mapping software. The Arcview database, along with more traditional photographs and reports, will provide information for future conservators diagnosing and documenting conservation problems.
The final phase of the project involved stripping all the 1980 paint from the walls, overmantel, and paneling. The paint was removed, as it was intended to be when it was applied, to prevent the same kind of buildup that was observed on the ceiling and cornice.
The areas of failing paint, most of which proved to be the result of modern coatings, on the overmantel and paneling were stabilized. Finally, with Buck's help, a paint system was developed that replicated the appearance of the verdigris green color that was specified by Washington.
This brilliant, almost emerald green is actually a two-part paint system that consists of a basecoat covered with a semitransparent overglaze. Applying a glaze over the basecoat was a common practice in the 18th century to provide an even level of gloss and to protect the more expensive paint layer underneath.
After almost 200 years, Mount Vernon's small dining room has once again regained its brilliant former appearance. With the freshly conserved furnishings laid out for a bountiful feast and the newly restored prints on the walls, one can easily imagine the delight of Washington’s guests as they stepped into the room to enjoy their dinner.
P.Gardiner Hallock is the manager of restoration at Mount Vernon, Virginia.