Painting over a mistaken past at Colonial Williamsburg

Working high inside the famous entrance hall of Colonial Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace, painter Glen Wilson took the most visible step in a dramatic makeover of the space early Thursday morning.

Climbing to the top of a tall rolling scaffold, he aimed his spray gun at the face of the dark walnut cornice and pulled the trigger, releasing a short burst of air mixed with light-colored Zinsser Premium Primer.

“Pssst! Pssst!” the gun hissed as he moved it expertly across the surface, only to shake his head at the thin, less-than-satisfactory results and — after consulting with his foremen and co-workers and looking up from the floor below — decide that this high-profile paint job needed a different sprayer.

Minutes later, Wilson took aim again, this time with an airless gun that delivered the primer in exactly the volume he wanted.

Two passes was all he needed to hide the old walnut completely, and within a few minutes the new coat of pigment started to transform the imposing entrance hall.

“Oh, you got it now, Glen!” CW paint foreman Steve Daniels shouted, as he watched the transfiguration unfold from the floor.

“You can already see it getting brighter,” foreman Gentry Godwin said, as the rapidly growing expanse of primer caught and reflected the morning sunlight in a way not seen since the walnut was installed more than 84 years ago.

“He’s already made a big difference.”

Evidence-driven

Based on months of study, planning and testing, the striking overhaul of the entrance hall is the latest in a series of revisions that date back to 1979, when CW began its first concerted effort to recreate the martial display of muskets, swords and pistols installed by Virginia’s royal governors during the colonial era.

A second update took place in the early 2000s, when the arms were reconfigured to reflect an inventory made after the abrupt departure of Gov. Lord Dunmore at the beginning of the Revolution.

Still, not until now has the foundation addressed the issue of the entrance hall’s dark-colored walnut walls, which were based on a single, scant fragment of wood unearthed in a distant part of the palace ruins in 1929, then reassessed and determined to be historically inaccurate during the 2005-06 campaign.

“We know we have very strong evidence for this change. And now that we’ve started painting, it’s exciting to see this space beginning to look the way it should,” said director of architectural preservation Matt Webster, citing the light colors depicted in numerous period illustrations of arms displays as well as every surviving 1700s arms display in England.

“We thought we knew what it would look like — and now we can actually see it. The change is pretty dramatic.”

Despite the speed of the transformation, this is no ordinary paint job, but instead a carefully planned, deliberately reversible coating designed to not only cover but also help preserve the walnut cornice, pilasters and paneling fabricated and installed in the early 1930s.

Sprayed the right way, the primer and first coat will be far thinner than anything their painters can lay on with a brush, Daniels and Godwin said, and that should help the wood underneath expand and contract without increasing the danger of cracking.

The second coat of Prentis Cream — which is based on the most recent and accurate paint analysis CW has ever done, Webster said — will be brushed on as thinly as possible for the same reason.

“We’re going to run it out as far as we can so we get the brush strokes but not the thickness,” Daniels said.

“We don’t want to lock those panels down and make them split.”

Close inspection

As the painters work, CW conservators are making the most of the chance to photograph, examine and treat hundreds of original and reproduction muskets, pistols and swords that have not been taken down from the palace’s walls for more than a decade.

Though cleaned and inspected daily by the Historic Interiors team — and scrutinized more closely every year during the building’s annual maintenance closing — the height and scale of the display makes it hard to focus on the weapons as thoroughly as objects conservator Tina Gessler and her assistants are doing in CW’s well-lit lab.

“We just can’t get at it the same way,” she explained, “and here we can spend hours on each object if we need to.

“Each one of these original muskets takes at least two or three hours — and some of them closer to a day depending on the kind of treatment needed.”

Among the most important jobs is the removal of the old, deteriorated lacquer that was applied to some of the highly polished metal decades ago — and which conservators have since stopped using in favor of a more natural yet corrosion-free patina.

But just getting the chance to examine the topmost objects in the display represents a milestone in the care of about 40 guns that make up what curator Erik Goldstein described as “the most important group of long Land Pattern Brown Bess muskets in existence.”

Acquired in the 1950s, the famed collection of arms from England’s Flixton Hall traces back to the Royal Welch Fusiliers — one of the oldest and most storied regiments in the British Army — and as stellar examples of the Crown’s primary infantry weapon during the 1700s it gives the Governor’s Palace arms display a strong physical and symbolic link to a century-long period of imperial expansion.

Yet back in 2006 — when they were taken down and remounted in a revised Revolutionary War display — they remained on site and were examined there rather than the conservation lab.

“Some of these guns have never been inside this building,” Goldstein said. “So it’s really exciting for us to get this chance to look at them so closely.”

Judging by the examples examined so far, the guns have weathered the past dozen years in the controlled environmental conditions of the palace with apparent ease, showing no signs of metal corrosion, no additional deterioration of the previously worm-damaged wood and only a few missing pins, Gessler says.

And once the old lacquer has been removed and their treatment completed, they’ll go right back up where they were in the upper ranks of the display.

“Even when there’s an interpreter in the room, things still get touched,” Gessler said.

“So we want these things where you can see them but they’re safely out of reach.”

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

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