Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Don’t Believe Your Eyes…

One of Historic Charleston Foundation’s missions is to educate up and coming preservationists about how we do “business.” Yesterday I had the opportunity to give a special tour of the Aiken-Rhett House to one of Rick Rockwell’s College of Charleston historic preservation classes. It’s a studio class and Rick wanted me to discuss how we used renderings and blueprints to guide the contractor’s work during the restoration.
An aspect of the restoration that was less easy to put on paper was the restoration of all of the faux paint finishes as identified by Dr. Susan Buck, our paint conservator and consultant. The solid shutters, which are made of pine, were faux grained to look like oak. The stucco was scored to look like large masonry blocks with a faux, white mortar joint painted into the grooves. The window frames of the large, triple-hung sash windows were faux painted with sand mixed in to imitate brownstone.
The replication of these original 1850s faux finishes was as much art and experiment as science. Faux painter Stephanie Poe’s work on the solid shutters is an interpretation of original work that we found in two places inside the house: a third floor door; and a built in cabinet. Sand painting, the use of sand in paint to simulate stone, was popular up and down the eastern seaboard during this time period. In our case, the desired effect was that of brownstone, which would have been otherwise imported from the northeastern United States. Ironically, the windowsills of the Aiken-Rhett House are real brownstone yet they were painted over with the yellow lime wash during the 1850s renovation by the Aikens. The painting or penciling as we came to call it, of the faux mortar joints was more patience than art, however. Under the guidance of Willy Cook Jr. the crew from Frank Leigh painted over two miles worth of white lines.
By using these faux treatments of the Aiken-Rhett House’s exterior as examples, Rick’s students got the point that aspects of an historic restoration are an interpretive art. I was surprised, however, that I wasn’t directly asked why the Aikens put so much effort and money into all this visual trickery. Perhaps I had explained the technical aspects so well that they were dazzled. For the generation who grew up in the 90s when wallpaper was out and faux painting was in, maybe faux coverings are no big deal. Regardless, whenever I AM asked that question, I like to point out how many houses in my suburban neighborhood have non-functioning, faux plastic shutters nailed on both sides of their storm windows. The point is faux things on and in our houses is nothing new, but certainly the art of architectural materials imitation, as evidenced by the discovery and restoration of the 1850s exterior paint scheme at the Aiken-Rhett House, had one of its heydays during the Aikens’ lifetimes.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Article by Robert Behre in Charleston Post and Courier About ARH Limewash

Robert Behre wrote an excellent article on the traditional lime wash that we are applying to the exterior of the Aiken-Rhett House as part of our Save America's Treasures project. One of our goals moving forward is for the Aiken-Rhett's limewashing to serve as a case study for an historically correct application. We encourage owners of stuccoed buildings and preservation students to visit the site.

Post & Courier article

Mystery Well Reveals Secrets!

Well Discovery Update
It felt a bit like opening King Tut’s tomb for the first time, but removing the well’s bluestone cap didn’t reveal any treasure. What we did discover, thanks to Martha Zierden and her crew, was a well full of mud. We were not completely disappointed though. Based on the fact that we found an underground French-drain running from the house into the well’s side, we believe the well was used to capture water overflow from the house. The overflow may have been from either the gutters or the cisterns that were installed in the attic and under the art gallery. The dig also revealed a terra cotta pipe on the opposite side of the well, which appears to connect to yet another set of drainage piping. It appears that the well functioned as a holding tank of sorts and was part of the water management efforts in the back yard of the Aiken-Rhett.
This is no small discovery in that we now have one more puzzle piece in recreating the picture of how 19th century Charlestonians dealt with very real technical challenges in building large homes in an area with a relatively high water table. The newly discovered well combined with the still unexplained brick swales (i.e. that were recently re-covered with sand) in the courtyard point to one fact-the Aiken’s had a problem controlling the water on their property. This is an area of early 19th century construction that we know little about. With all of her archaeological experience on the Charleston Peninsula, Martha had not seen a well used in this manner.
The management plan is to recover the well with the brick pavers, document our preliminary excavation, and save a more extensive investigation for later.
While not a discovery of gold, the well is a treasure. Albeit a muddy one.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Surprise Discovery

When you dig a hole at an historic site you run the risk of destroying important archaeological features. Sometimes you have no choice, however, you have to dig. This was the case recently when Hoyt Roberts, Aaron James, and Nick Lawton of Richard Marks Restorations were digging up brick pavers in the courtyard in order to relay them. A dull thud alerted them to the fact that there was more under their shovels than sand. A few minutes of investigative digging uncovered a surprising find—what appears to be a capped off well.
The well measures about five feet in diameter. It is covered by a bluestone slab, which must weigh at least five hundred pounds. Wells were commonly found in the yards of nineteenth century Charleston homes, but the placement of this one is curiously close to the back staircase leading into the courtyard (i.e. about fifteen feet).
We hope to conduct an archaeological excavation in early January to determine the approximate age of the well, if it is indeed a well and not a cistern, and remove the bluestone cap. We will see if it is filled in with dirt or still open which will allow us to better plan a future investigation.
Stay tuned as we hope to have some answers soon and I'll let you know if we find the family silver…

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

It's not Fallingwater, but...

I just saw Kenneth Love’s film “Saving Fallingwater”. The film documents restoration efforts to stabilize the cantilevered sections of the Frank Lloyd Wright (insert your own superlative here) designed residence in Pennsylvania. It was perfect timing for me to see the film because it really put our piazza stabilization project at the Aiken-Rhett House in perspective. It’s hard to single out any one aspect of the Save America’s Treasures work as being more important than another, but the piazza stabilization has to be towards the top. The problem is that the arcade supporting the two story piazza is rotating away from the building. There have been previous attempts at stabilization, but the combination of a rather shallow footing under the arches and downward pressure from the weight has continued to the degree that it has become a high priority for stabilization.
In order to do this, the restoration team designed a series of metal tie-rods to secure the piazza floor joists to the building’s interior. Basically, flat iron rods were attached to the sides of the piazza floor joists, holes were mined through the masonry walls, the iron run into the building, another flat iron piece was secured to either interior floor joists or embedded into a load bearing masonry wall, and the two flat sections joined with threaded rod that incorporates a turnbuckle to tighten the two together. All the metal work was then white washed to blend in and the masonry repaired so you wouldn’t even know what happened.
Pretty simple in design, VERY messy to install, especially when you have visitors needing to be in the same area. This hasn’t been the most exciting part of the project, unless you consider the alternative, but like the folks at Fallingwater I’ve learned that you can minimize the aesthetic impact of a potentially intrusive restoration project if you plan well.

Next entry will discuss why faux finishes on a building’s exterior were so important to people like the Aikens in the 19th Century.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Did you say yellow?

“Yellow! Did you say yellow?”
“Well, not exactly yellow. It’s more of a brownish, subdued, goldish, kind of yellow,” I replied.
“But I like it just how it looks now,” she said, her disappointment clear on her face and in her voice.

This conversation was just one of many I have had regarding the work currently underway at the Aiken-Rhett House, funded by the Save America's Treasures grant. And I have to admit, I also love the current weathered patina of the house’s exterior. So when I first heard of the plans to limewash the building, I was not enthused about it. It’s perfectly fine for old buildings to look their age and the thought of putting a fresh coat of paint on such a Grand Dame didn’t set well with a lot of people, me included…at least not at first.

There were a couple of factors that changed my mind and eased my reservations. First, our architect Glenn Keyes and our contractor Moby Marks explained to me the finer points of limewashing. Limewash is not paint per se; it’s the very top coat of exterior stucco. Since it is lime based, it bonds to the masonry below it and helps create a protective yet permeable outer coating.

Prior to beginning the Aiken-Rhett House’s limewashing, Glenn took me around Charleston to look at limewashed buildings. I began to see the beauty of a historically correct limewash. Limewash colors maintain their vibrancy yet they have a depth to them you just can’t get from modern paints. A limewashed wall has a kind of a mottled look, which is the inescapable result of limewash’s water-like consistency. It has to be applied in multiple coats with a stiff bristle brush. And since you can add pigments to it, we get to debate things like “how yellow” the yellow is.

Enter historic paint specialist Susan Buck. Susan has been working on understanding the paint sequences at the Aiken-Rhett House for years. She took an X-acto knife and sliced a tiny bit of paint off the wall and examined it under a microscope. (If you’ve never seen a microscopic cross-section of a paint sample, picture a slice of eight-layer cake with red, green, white, brown, and yellow icing alternating between the layers.) With this sample, Susan was able to determine that the house was limewashed multiple times. Her identification of the correct yellow came as, admittedly, a bit of an aesthetic shock to me once I saw a color match sample put on the house’s wall.

But I was finally able to appreciate the aesthetic changes to the Aiken-Rhett House once I understood the building’s limewash and color history and the need to put the top coat on the stucco. It sounds oxymoronic, but a newly limewashed wall has an aged look. So, for those not happy with new/old color, you won’t have to wait another hundred years to see the patina we appreciate now.