Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Paint in the Schuyler Mansion: Restoration

By Jessie Serfilippi

The current paint color in the Formal Parlor.
The Schuyler Mansion’s interior paint underwent a few different restorations between the state’s purchase in 1911 and the latest restoration in the early 1990s. In 1911, at the beginning of State ownership, the original paint was blow-torched off the walls. It was replaced with an inaccurate cream color. Only a few areas, mainly behind the window shutters, remained where later restorers were able to find samples from which they could determine some original paint colors.

The first attempt at uncovering the true colors of the Schuyler Mansion’s walls was in the late 1940s. Starting in 1948, restorers chipped away at the small remaining samples of paint and discovered seventeen layers of paint on the walls of the main hallway. They repeated the process in each room. Underneath all of these samples they discovered a variety of colors, such as gray-blue in the Formal Parlor and pea-green in the Master Bedroom. While the amount of research that went into backing these findings is credible—18th century paints commonly used in the latter quarter of the century were consulted—the chipping technique the restorers used is not reliable.

According the restoration efforts undertaken by Mount Vernon as documented in an article for House Beautiful in the 1980s, there are several factors that can alter the original paint color’s appearance. Fading of the original pigment— eighteenth century paints in particular are known to fade to colors that differ vastly from the original— dirt, and aging linseed oil, commonly used as a finish, can add to the discoloration of the paint, rendering the chipping technique mostly useless.

In the 1990s, another effort to uncover the real colors of the Schuyler Mansion’s walls was undertaken. This time, there was more technology to aid the restorers in their work, but the same issue earlier restorers faced persisted—there was little paint left to sample. For this study, hand-held magnifiers, raking lights, and a binocular microscope were used to take samples that could provide a stratigraphic look at the paint. A stratigraphic view of the sample allows researchers a comprehensive look at the layers that have been painted onto the walls and is helpful in determining the color of a specific layer of paint.

It is in crevices formed by shutters like these
from the Master Bed Chamber that original paint samples
  may still be found, due to the blow torch's inability to reach them.

These samples were then mounted onto slides and studied under high magnification. Some were exposed to ultraviolet light for a few days so researchers could obtain a better view of the original oil paint. Once a paint color was determined from each sample, they were matched to tones on the Munsell scale. Yet even with the new technology in use, the findings of this study were limited by the lack of sizeable original paint samples. In some instances, original colors could not be definitively determined because the samples taken were too small to be conclusive.

So, what did the walls of the Schuyler Mansion look like when Philip Schuyler called it home? Even though the results from the paint analysis aren’t conclusive for every room, we can still make an educated guess. We’re going to focus on the main hallway, since it runs throughout the home and was a space that was visible to all who entered the house.

From the paint analysis, we know the walls were primed with oil to prevent the pigmented oil paint from seeping into the them. The window seats of the hallways were grained in dark brown. The wooden sidings of the hallway were found to be painted a shade of grey or green. But what if the color the restorers saw on the walls was the faded version of the original? What if the walls were once Prussian blue, as were Mount Vernon’s?

A window seat in the Main Entrance

Prussian blue is known to be vibrant when first applied, and later fades to a green or grey color—exactly the shade restorers found on the walls. It was an expensive color, and one a man as concerned with showing off wealth as Schuyler was would use in a space that all visitors to the home saw.

Even if another analysis with newer technology was performed, the issue of few surviving places with original paint still remains. There are still two other routes to uncovering what these walls truly looked like: a receipt from Schuyler turning up or a newfound account from a guest who goes into greater detail about the space. Until one of these three things happens, the true color of the Schuyler Mansion walls remains a mystery.

The current paint color in the hallway.
Prussian blue at Washington's Mount Vernon.

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