Restoration Blog

Historic Paints Bring the House to Life

In October 2022, we accomplished an important and exciting restoration task. Chris Mills and team members Brad Steward and Jenna Stillwell spent four weeks on site making traditional paint finishes for the interior woodwork and plaster walls. Few people have seen traditional hand-ground paint finishes like the distemper and pigmented lime washes for the plaster walls and the hand-made linseed oil paints for the woodwork.

In July, the restoration staff, consulting architects and Architectural Advisory Panel decided on which finishes would be appropriate for which space in the house. We knew all of the colors and finishes from hundreds of plaster fragments found during the investigation and only had to find Jefferson precedents used at Monticello for clues as to where they were used in the house. The rich gray distemper paints (made from hide glue, chalk, pigments and water) were chosen for the dining room and parlor, offsetting the white trim in a dramatic way, especially the classical doorway pediments and entablatures. We can now fully see and understand Jefferson’s very personal aesthetics that complete the visual impact in his personal house and spaces.

Visitors to Poplar Forest in recent years will recall the raw-wood trim of the interior spaces: the long, shapely moldings of variegated tan, brown and green poplar wood outlining each door and window, and the equally bare—but commanding—entablatures at ceiling height. As beautiful as all of this premier timber is in its natural glory, the architectural majesty of the classical moldings are much easier seen and better appreciated once they are painted.

The unification of the color and texture on the painted wood trim allows the interplay between light and shadow to emphasize the movement between the shapes that make up the architectural elements. Stepping into these newly primed spaces gives guests of Jefferson’s retreat home the sense of intimate, scaled-down grandeur that he was so strongly inspired by in Paris.

Check out the time lapse videos on YouTube for the dining room and parlor!