What lies beneath
The Rockingham Meeting House has been painted many times over the more than two centuries of its existence.

What lies beneath

Rockingham historians learn Meeting House was originally painted red after an expert conservation scholar with a microscope uncovers generations of colors

ROCKINGHAM — After a forensic dive into 18 generations of paint on the exterior and four layers on the interior, conservator and paint analyst Dr. Susan Buck will make a return presentation about her work at the historic Rockingham Meeting House on Monday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m. via Zoom.

Buck, who teaches part-time at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and conducts paint analyses in her own Virginia lab, has been doing this work since 1995.

She considers herself “lucky” to have a niche in the conservation field that has taken her to many interesting places, including the Forbidden City in Beijing, ongoing projects for the Historic Charleston Foundation and Monticello, and private collections.

In early August, she spent three days in Rockingham, collecting paint and wood samples from the interior and exterior of the Meeting House, as well as from the 1816 hearse, funeral bier, and hearse barn that comprise this national historic landmark.

During her three-day investigation into the 233-year-old building, Buck discovered the exterior was originally a deep red with cream-colored trim elements.

An archeologist with a microscope

“It's a fabulous clapboard building, remarkably untouched and quite grand for its type,” said Buck this week, adding it's not unusual to find that red but noting that for a building of its size, buying pigments to make that paint color in such quantity would have been pricey.

She finds it likely that the exterior paint was rather made from red ochre, or calcium carbonate, “with maybe a little red lead, which is a drying agent,” she said, noting all early paint contained some lead.

In her sleuthing, Buck was also able to discern that the exterior was “only that color once” and was painted in creamy colors in “a monochromatic way” subsequently.

“It's like being an archeologist with a microscope,” she said of her work.

Buck carries a portable microscope and, using a scalpel, takes paint samples - about {1/16}th of an inch thick - from places such as the top edges of doors, one of the best areas to get viable samples.

She then brings the samples to her lab and “sorts through for the best and most complete,” which are cast into polyester cubes and polished to expose a cross-section of the paint layers.

“You can see under the microscope the stratigraphy of the layers,” she said. “Basically, you're looking for many, many elements that tell how much comparative time may have elapsed between paintings.”

Each layer has its own distinct properties, and Buck photographs them under the microscope, creating references. Buck ultimately used that data to provide the town with the best commercial matches in the Benjamin Moore paint line.

“The paint analysis work conducted at the Rockingham Meeting House is comparable to that being undertaken at many major historic sites in this country, including Monticello, Mount Vernon, Historic Deerfield, The Metropolitan Museum of Art period rooms, Colonial Williamsburg, Historic New England and Hancock Shaker Village,” wrote Buck in her executive summary.

Buck found that, overall, “the paints on the interior of the building are remarkably intact, while the exterior paints have suffered from weathering, ongoing building restoration work, and deliberate removal prior to repainting.”

“Fortunately, it was possible to retrieve early paint evidence from every element of the interior and most elements of the exterior,” she wrote.

The analyst says the building has “evolved” over time with some restorations. She thinks one way to “understand the palette” is to use mock-ups to represent the original colors and make that part of an exhibit physically in the Meeting House or online.

Preserving the evidence

Buck came on the scene, hired by the Historical Commission, at a time when the building needs fairly substantial maintenance and window painting.

“They didn't want to lose the evidence that survives, and they also wanted to find out if the current white color was all wrong,” said Buck. “When you have a building like this that is so important, but also off the beaten track, this type of work does bring it attention, which is important for things like grant funding.”

“It doesn't get enough attention,” she said of the Meeting House. “It's so remarkably untouched.”

“You can really understand the resonance of the space,” Buck continued. “Standing on the pulpit, someone's voice could carry above the first and second floors very easily, and photos in the Rockingham [Free] Public Library archive show how this was the center of the community, how incredibly lively a place the building was.”

Grateful for a paint nerd

As it turned out, the white shade the interior trim is painted is, indeed, “all wrong.”

“It was just so exciting to learn, for example, that the inside of the window sashes were at one time a kind of floral white,” said town Historic Preservation Commission Coordinator Walter Wallace.

Two of the building's active 47 window sets - impressively massive at 20 panes over 20 panes each - needed restoration work and, when the restorers called to ask what color to paint them, Wallace asked Buck.

“Ask a paint nerd, and get a nine-page memo,” Wallace said with a chuckle.

“When they put the windows back in with the floral white, the windows glow. When the sun comes through, there are two window sets next to one another, one restored and one not, and you can see the difference.”

Wallace calls Buck “the most delightful person to work with.”

During her time at the Meeting House, local volunteers helped collect samples from “way up on top outside the building,” Wallace said.

“She was just wonderful and the way she was drawn into the building, it moved me to get to the way-back corner and a little storage shed and, lo and behold, I discovered some architectural features that had been restored,” he said.

“And that's where we got our first inkling that the place had been painted red,” he noted.

Wallace said that the meetinghouse is more than 200 years old “and in constant need of conservation and restoration work.”

And, because it's a national landmark, “the first thing is do no harm - to either harm the wood that is there or misrepresent what is there,” he added. “Because the windows needed painting and pews need restoration, before we went at it we wanted to know what is there.”

Hearing of Buck, the town was able to receive about $6,000 from the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation to help pay for her work.

“We could not have done it without that money,” Wallace said.

Another area where Buck's expertise has been invaluable is regarding the pews, which were originally painted. But somewhere along the line they were stripped and rubbed with linseed oil, which to this day causes a tan stain if one sits back on them when wearing white clothing.

“We learned from Susan how best to deal with that,” Wallace said.

Wallace said the Commission does not intend to paint them again. Rather, “we're working on getting money to clean them appropriately and wax them to keep the oil from seeping to clothing while keeping that wood feel to it,” he noted.

“What we want to do is make sure what we pass on will be a meetinghouse true to its original self,” he said. “It needs some help and some work. And we want to make it a useable place but we don't want to make any radical architectural changes.”

Answers raise more questions

Buck left the town with some suggestions for future repair and maintenance of the building.

“This paint investigation has answered many of the questions posed at the beginning of the project, but, not surprisingly, has revealed other areas deserving further research,” she wrote.

“The results of the analysis also offers guidance into conservation approaches for gentle cleaning and treatment of the woodwork and visual compensation for areas of patchy restored wall plaster,” Buck said.

She suggests it would be “helpful to analyze additional wall plaster samples to see if there are variations in the limewash coating history in different areas of the walls, to potentially even out patchy plaster areas, to clean and fix the tacky pew issue, and to protect them with appropriate waxing.”

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