Plasterwork Panels

In 2003, Kenmore restoration staff made the exciting discovery of a feature in the house that had remained hidden and unknown for more than 100 years—evidence of plasterwork panels on the walls of the dining room.

The dining room during the Howard era
Wooden moldings on the walls of the
Dining Room during the Howard era.
In 1881, Kenmore was purchased by William Key Howard and it was his son, William Key Howard, Jr., who repaired the plasterwork ceilings so badly damaged during the Civil War. A photograph of the dining room during the Howard occupation shows wooden moldings on the walls.

After the house was purchased by the Kenmore Association in 1922, the house underwent a major restoration and the wooden moldings were removed, leaving plain, flat walls all around the room.

During the current restoration, the restoration staff wanted to investigate the site of the wooden moldings to try to discover when they had first appeared. Were they added by the Howards or could they even have been in place when the house was built in 1775?

Dining room walls with paint removed
The dining room in June, 2005
The investigative process started with carefully removing the paint on the walls, layer by layer. When a layer of mustard yellow paint was reached, raw plaster was revealed in the locations of each of the moldings. An analysis of this plaster showed that it was gypsum-based, meaning it was much more modern than the plaster used during the construction of the house. Gypsum-based plaster was not used in this way in 1775.

 

Cross hatching on the plaster walls
Cross-hatching on the walls
Next, this thin layer of gypsum-based plaster was carefully removed to expose the plaster underneath. Analysis of the newly revealed plaster confirmed that it was the same as the rest of the plaster in the house, so it was clearly 1775 plaster. Even more exciting though, was a completely unexpected discovery—cross-hatching on the plaster.

This was an indicator that decorative plaster molding had been applied to the walls in 1775. The cross-hatching helped to hold the molding in place on the wall. This cross-hatching was revealed on all 12 panel locations that surround the room.

 

Shell and rope molding
Shell-and-rope molding
The next question was, "What did the moldings look like?" Clearly, they would have fit with the motif of the other decorations in the room. After careful study and measurement, plaster experts have determined that the space allowed for the moldings matches the width of the border on the fireplace overmantle, with its shell motif. This very design is found in Abraham Swan's pattern book, The British Architect. (Visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art website to learn more.)

The Baltimore-based firm Hayles & Howe, which also has offices in Bristol, England, undertook the task of re-creating these beautiful moldings for Kenmore.

Working on a plaster frameHayles and Howe made approximately 2,000 pieces to completely recreate these amazing moldings. As large as this number seems, it must be compared to the approximately ten thousand pieces created for the ceilings in the house by the original artisan, known only as the "stucco man."

The new panels are now on the walls and, along with the new pale blue wallpaper, return the room to its former glory.

Return to the Dining Room restoration page