First State Heritage Park Part II: The Colorful Colonials in the Old State House

You enter the Old State House by way of the court room.  It is a grand entrance, framed by the freestanding geometrical staircase designed by John Howe in 1791.  From this vantage, one can see the efforts of the extensive restoration.  If you look closely, you will notice that three of the four columns are the original wooden columns, and have the characteristic slightly undulating surface resulting from their carving, time and use.  The forth, a concrete replacement, mimics their details but is noticeably more precise in its surface profile.  Off to the left you find the Recorder of Deeds office.  The grand staircase, which had to be reconstructed at one point, takes one upstairs to the Senate and House chambers- look for the gilt sunflower at the top of the staircase.  A display about the underground railroad is also found upstairs.  It is a great museum with a lot of history, and you don’t have to look any further than the paint on the walls to learn something. 

Part of the most recent restoration included re-painting the interior based on evidence from paint analysis.  Paint analysis is important for multiple reasons.  First, paint is part of the construction record in a building.  Establishing a chromochronology, or a full sequence of paint layers, in turn helps in forming a complete construction chronology.  Just as importantly, paint is a highly visible expression of cultural and socioeconomic conditions of its time.  The selection of materials, finish methods and hues tell us much about those who owned and built a structure- what was geographically available, what they could afford and what message they were trying to convey in the cultural context of their time and place.  Third, in the case of preservation, knowing what is in your paint helps inform you as to why it might be failing and how to save it.

Accurate understanding of historic paint is about more than technical construction details, though.  If one is trying to authentically experience a place, color is a key component.  Anyone who has painted a room in their home knows that the color you choose affects how the room feels- larger, smaller, warmer or colder.  Paint is an integral part of a building’s character.  It often surprises people to learn how vibrant paint colors of the American Colonial Era were.  The case of the verdigris glazed wall of William Corbit’s chamber illustrate the surprisingly beautiful colors and finishes found in interiors at the time.  The painter’s palette included blacks, whites, grays, and various beiges, but ochre produced yellows and iron oxide created shades of umbers, siennas and reds,  while copper compounds could produce bright greens.  Crimson from mercuric sulfide and Prussian blue were also available.

In the assumption of a more somber tinted colonial world, two factors are at play.  One issue is that the paint colors we see now are not what they once were.  Paint colors change over time, fading due to chemical breakdown in the paint or light degradation.  This is especially true with colors that are “fugitive” or that have a tendency to fade quickly- Prussian blue is a good example of this.  Even in cases of buildings which have been maintained, a paint color is often “touched up” based on the current color and not restored to its former vibrancy.  This process of forgetting the original color in a building is often referred to as “color creep” and is due to both the physical changes as well as the perceptions of those viewing the paint.  I think this only reinforces the second issue, which is our tendency to imagine our forbearers as a serious, stoic bunch.  The time period in which this building was constructed was one of social upheaval, ideological and physical battles over the rights of colonists, and a time when the United States was struggling to define an identity as a nation.  “Somber” isn’t really the first descriptor that comes to mind.

A paint analysis presents a narrative of the changing aesthetics of a building.  But don’t be fooled, paint analysis doesn’t mean scraping off some layers of paint and going down to Home Depot to find a match.  Paints of the late 18th century were not like the products of today.  Each batch of paint was hand made on site for that specific project.  Early pigments were hand ground and mixed with oil to create a paste.  In order to paint, more oil and turpentine were added to create a liquid.  This hand ground, homemade mixture resulted in uneven color across a painted surface.  Most paints would have been applied with rounded brushes and unlike using a roller, the strokes would have been visible, and part of a good painter’s job was making these visible brush strokes attractive.  In the case of the very wealthy, a smooth finish could have been achieved by painstaking application.  Four to nine coats would be applied, and a stone such as a pumice used to rub each coat smooth before applying the next.  In either case, a glazed surface was desirable at the time.  Needless to say, painters at this time were trained guildsmen who trained through apprenticeships in order to perfect their craft.   For a detailed rundown of historic paint composition, check out the TPS Preservation Brief 28: Painting Historic Interiors.

To perform a paint analysis, samples are taken, often very small in size- just 1⁄8″ are needed.   These samples are used to identify the layers of paint, called stratigraphies, which are then examined in a lab to determine paint composition and hue, as well as assessing finishing techniques.  Once the small samples are painstakingly removed using a scalpel, they are encased in polyester resin.  After the resin dries, the sample is polished with micromesh sandpaper, called polishing clothes, which create a glass like smooth surface.  These samples are examined and photographed under visible and ultraviolet light using a colorimeter microscope which measures the absorbance of particular wavelengths of light, and tested using fluorochorome stains which are used to detect organic compounds in a sample.  Natasha Loeblich has a paper about paint analysis filled with all sort of pictures of various scans of paint samples, if you really love the lab.

Courtroom before and after
The courtroom before restoration and after. Note the drastic change in paint color. Photos courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives and the State of Delaware

The late 18th century in the United States was a time of colorful characters, and it is only fitting that their environment would reflect such.  A postcard shows the courtroom before restoration.  The difference between then and the courtroom now, as found in the museum’s gallery photos, is striking.  Paint analysis has come a long way in the last few decades, and the Old State House is a good example of how it is changing our perceptions of the past.