Friday, March 27, 2009

Painted Ladies

Most visitors at historic houses tend to think that we’re seeing a perfect window into the past—a setup exactly like what the house looked like during the occupancy of its previous owners. It is important to remember though, that while the museum staff have likely conducted extensive research to learn how the house looked during a certain time period, there will always be gaps in historical knowledge that prevent the exact replication of a room.

At Clermont, we are lucky since we still have most of the collections owned by the Livingston family—some historic house museums start off with only a building, and very little or no furniture. Since our restoration date is c. 1930, we are also lucky in that we have historic photographs of some of the rooms on the tour floor. Even so, for a room like the Drawing Room, photos only exist from c. 1880 and c. 1940.—leaving a big gap during a time that the Livingston family did a lot of re-decorating.

This photo shows the Drawing Room around 1940- when Alice Livingston still owned Clermont and occassionally entertained here. Along with another image of the room, this photo was published in several books in the 1940's. The appearance of light colored walls in the photo likely guided the restoration of the room in the 1970's, when the walls were painted white.

I mention the drawing room because during the restoration work that has been going on this winter, we learned that our perceptions of the room really weren’t quite right. While preparing the room for repainting, paint analysis was conducted to determine the appropriate paint color. When the work was started, the paint on the walls was a drab, cold white—it was applied when the state began restoration in the 1970’s. When this paint gently scraped off, we found two other layers of paint, one dark chalky gray, one yellow. Based on written evidence we have about changes that were made in the house during the Livingston’s residence, we learned that if we want the room to look like it did c. 1930, it should be yellow!

With the discovery of the older paint colors in the drawing room, we’ve been curious about the other rooms too—did they restore to the wrong colors there too? Did this house, which is mostly white now, used to be many colors?

If you look carefully, you can see many places where the hidden layers are peeking out—some where the Livingston family hid older paints or wallpapers, others where the top layer was added since Clermont became a museum. They provide clues about the way a room looked before. The library, for example, once had a flocked, flowery wallpaper.

In Alice’s bedroom, another room that we have know as a plain white room for many years, peeling paint has shown a layer of blue once existed on the door.

Upstairs, in a bathroom in the servant's quarters, many layers of paint are visible. The light blue, which is the top layer, may have been added by the family in the 1930's or 40's, or it could date as late as the restoration of the house, in the 1970's.

Next time you’re at Clermont—look closely—you never know what secrets are hiding in the walls!

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