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Preserving Colonial Williamsburg: Painting the Governor’s Palace

Behind the decision and process of painting the entry hall, back hall, stairs and second-floor hall of the Governor’s Palace

February 26, 2019 BY Emily Campbell

As of Feb. 1, 2019, we have finished painting the entry and stair hall at the Governor’s Palace to reflect the latest research discoveries. We began by painting the paneling in the entry hall in January 2018. This year we continued the painting into the back hall, up the stairs, and on to the second-floor hall. With the completion of this work, the architectural features and period arms display are presented more accurately. The decision to paint is based on a reevaluation of archaeological evidence as well as several 18th-century British prints showing arms displays. On your next visit, take note of how the paint shows the depth of the carved details of the cornice, pilasters, and panels. You will also notice that the arms now show prominently, instead of blending in with the dark wood panels.

Here’s a glimpse of the arms display before it was painted

Major changes to the Historic Area do not happen overnight. Instead, it took several departments to complete this project. We want to share a few of these participants with you and how they were involved.

Before any paint came into the building, every gun, sword, and fire bucket had to be removed from the walls. In addition to the arms, all the iron hanging hardware and wooden battens used to secure the arms had to be removed to be painted separately. After the painting was finished, everything had to be rehung and fastened. Our Historic Interiors and Collections Care (HICC) team handled all of the object de-installation and reinstallation. This dedicated team helps daily with collections care and contributed to the Palace project on top of their daily responsibilities of cleaning in the Historic Area buildings.

The swords and guns did not sit in storage while the painters worked. Instead, they were each meticulously cleaned by our Objects Conservators and HICC.

Additional collections items, like the looking glasses, chairs, and paintings, were removed by the Curators and Conservation staff. All of these items had to be secured in unaffected areas of the building. Once the painting was completed, the Curatorial staff had an opportunity to make changes to the rooms. Interior scenes are often changed during Preventative Maintenance Closings, because it gives the staff more time to work in the space.

Once the necessary collections were removed, a scaffold was erected on the staircase. This allowed for HICC and Maintenance to access the arms and paneling on the second floor stair landing.

With the scaffold in place, Maintenance worked to hang protective plastic, secure zip walls, and cover the floors. Then the Colonial Williamsburg Paint Crew spent over two weeks painting. They start by cleaning and preparing the walls. Then they sprayed on the primer and finish coat. We used the sprayer for efficiency and to insure an even coat on the more intricate architectural finishes. After spraying, the painters used brushes to touch up the paneling, which gives the finish coat an 18th-century appearance.

This was already a complex project, due to the large number of collections to move and the sheer size of the area that was painted. The lighting fixtures added an additional challenge. The elegant Palace fixtures have been part of the interior since the 1930s. When the arms display was redesigned in 2006, the fixtures were electrified to give the illusion of candlelight. These fixtures could not be electrified in the usual manner. Since they are mounted to the paneling, it was impossible to run the wires behind the woodwork and into the wall. Instead, small wires run externally along the panels. All of these wires meet at a single point, where one tiny hole was drilled through the panel directly to the control panel. All of this is hidden by the wooden battens that secure the arms to the walls. You have to look extremely close to find the evidence. The finished product looks wonderful, but it was a challenge during the painting process. We had our Colonial Williamsburg Electricians monitoring the wiring throughout the project.

We hope that everyone coming to Colonial Williamsburg has a chance to see the new interiors at the Palace. It is always a pleasure to present our continued research in the Historic Area!


About the Author

Emily Campbell

Emily is an architectural preservation and research associate in the Grainger Department of Architectural Preservation and Research. She is responsible for documenting Colonial Williamsburg’s historic buildings as well as assisting with preservation projects. Campbell especially enjoys working on the painting projects and learning more about 18th-century paint colors. In her spare time, Emily enjoys traveling and spending time outdoors.