Paint analysis resurrects campus’ original color scheme

The All Campus Dining Center is one of a number of buildings that have been restored to their original look thanks to paint analysis ordered by Buildings and Grounds. courtesy of: Vassar College.
The All Campus Dining Center is one of a number of buildings that have been restored to their original look thanks to paint analysis ordered by Buildings and Grounds. courtesy of: Vassar College.
The All Campus Dining Center is one of a number of buildings that have been restored to their original look thanks to paint analysis ordered by Buildings and Grounds. courtesy of: Vassar College.

During the renovations of Davison House back in 2008 and 2009, the architectural team contracted for the job and the Office of Buildings and Grounds made a startling discovery. Analysis of a chip of wood dating back to 1902, when the structure was completed, revealed that the building’s windows and cupolas had originally been painted a dark green.

At some point in the house’s hundred-year history, the windows were painted over with white paint, matching those of Raymond, Strong and Lathrop today. The college, seeking to right past architectural wrongs, repainted the windows and cupolas with the dark green seen today.

This discovery was made through a modern scientific technique in renovation and conservation called historical paint analysis, which can uncover buried layers of paint no longer visible to the naked eye.

In the past several years, Buildings and Grounds has begun to routinely use paint analysis during renovation projects. The goal is return the appearance of historical buildings at Vassar back to how they looked like the very day they were completed.

According to Buildings and Grounds Project Manager Jeff Horst, renovations to a campus building will typically receive a high level of scrutiny from both his office and the contractors the college works with. Horst explained, “We’re pretty careful about that these days. Almost every project we’ll do, we’ll do a paint analysis on that to determine what the original colors were.” He continued, saying, “It just seems historically the correct thing to do.”

Of the renovations Project Manager Brian Corrigan has been involved with in the past seven years, which include work to the President’s House, the lecture room in Taylor Hall, the Old Observatory façade and the All-Campus Dining Center’s frontal columns, all have used a paint analysis.

When Buildings and Grounds decides to do a paint analysis for a project, they collect a small sample using a razor knife and mail it into a conservation firm. There, specialists, called architectural conservators, prepare these samples in a cross-section so that they can every single coat of paint and primer that was ever used on that surface is laid out in one blown-up image.

“It’s like a layer cake,” remarked Horst on the colored and striped paint cross-sections his office encounters. In a testament to the age of certain buildings on campus, a single sample will typically show 12-14 separate layers of paint or primer accumulated over the years.

Architectural conservators have color down to a science. Upon receiving a sample, they use a high-powered microscope to determine a color’s value on the Munsell Scale based on its chemical composition. Any single color that was ever or will ever be mixed by any artist can be quantified to an exact coordinate on the Munsell Scale.

Finally, a line of paint sharing the exact same three values is found on the commercial market and suggested to the college. In the case of the Davison windows, the paint that was ultimately matched to the original color was called “Dark as Night.”

Paint, however, is only one part of the picture that requires alteration. Buildings and Grounds will also replicate the original color of building’s bricks and mortar. When they renovated Davison, for instance, they also cleaned the exterior of the building, which had lost some of its former luster.

“One hundred years of airborne grime and dirt and pollution that will stick to these masonry structures changes them. Building get pretty dim and grungy,” said Corrigan. Additionally, during certain renovations, like the one of Swift Hall the past year, contractors will go into the space between the bricks, called the joints, and replace the old mortar with a new mix that better matches the look and texture of the original stonework.

Sometimes paint analysis alone cannot tell the whole story of a building. In circumstances such are these, contractors or architects will sometimes turn to Head of Archives and Special Collections Ron Patkus. He said his office will typically receive 20 or so requests every week from departments and individuals asking for some piece of documentation on the college’s 150-year-plus history.

Occasionally, a request comes in from architects hired by the college to work on the renovation of a building who are interested in history of that particular building. Patkus explained, “If they want to know what a building was originally like, it’s possible we have some information that can assist them. That could be a photograph or that could be a letter of some kind that in its text refers to the building in some way.”

Patkus said that there was some overlap in what he does daily managing the college’s archives and the work of architectural preservation. He explained, “I think that Vassar’s history is very important and we see it all around us and I do think there has been an attempt to preserve that as it is reflected in the buildings on campus.”

Whenever they approach an architectural  project, Buildings and Grounds described how they try to strike a balance between remaining faithful to the building’s original plans and adapting a building to modern facilities. It is a difference, said Corrigan, between restoration and renovation.

Corrigan said, “A restoration really is quite different from a renovation. A restoration doesn’t give you the functionality that you need today. It doesn’t always match up to the use and abuse that a structure sees today.”

He explained how even the architect behind the Davison renovation expressed some initial skepticism to the new paint at first. Added Corrigan, “There’s always that struggle,”

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