Charleston conservator Frances Ford has done paint research on dozens of historic buildings and has encountered her share of surprises.

But nothing in her career might match what she discovered last month while researching a grand home, Ochre Court, in Newport, R.I.

In 1946, the home was given to the Sisters of Mercy, which founded Salve Regina University there a year later.

A year ago, the school hired former College of Charleston architectural history professor Robert Russell, who soon hosted a small conservation team from the joint college-Clemson historic preservation program.

Their assignment? Remove a small patch of the white latex paint that was put on in the 1980s over a sky mural on the ceiling of one of Ochre Court's grandest rooms.

Last month, Ford, a conversation professor and a friend of Russell's, climbed the scaffolding with graduate student Kendy Altizer, and they got to work, as professor Diane Miller and Will Smith assisted them from the floor.

The pair found the sky, but after a while, Ford decided to try to speed things up by using her heat gun, a potentially dangerous tool.

"All of a sudden, the sky had gotten very dry and little areas flaked off in my hand," she says.

"I said, 'Oops!' Then there was a swirl of red and oranges. ... I just said, 'Oh, my goodness.' Kendy came over to me and I said I think we've found something else."

Altizer says after they found a little bit of hair, "we went a little further and found an eyeball, and that's when the cherub popped out. We got a lucky break."

The luck came because Russell happened to position their scaffolding right under the undiscovered cherub, because Ford grew frustrated with chemical strippers and reached for her heat gun and because there was some coating over the canvas that protected it decades ago when it was painted over with a sky motif.

"It was a nice set of accidental happenings all the way around," he says.

"By the time we broke for lunch," Ford adds, "we had this huge rectangle (exposed) through her body and her feet. It was the most exciting thing ever."

The pair were able to clear about a 5-by-7-foot section in just a day, and it's in excellent shape.

Now the school has to decide what to do next. Salve is working on a heritage preservation plan that will review its 21 historic buildings on a campus that once comprised seven contiguous 19th-century estates.

As far as the ceiling goes, Ford says she hopes to analyze the sky paint at Clemson's Warren Lasch Conservation Lab, and the findings not only will guide how best to remove it but also could answer a big mystery: When were the cherubs painted over?

Only after the cherub was discovered did Smith realize that an old 1897 black-and-white photo of Ochre Court, one that they had assumed was taken in a different room, actually showed the original ceiling.

When the college took over the house in 1947, its former ornate ballroom became a chapel, and now it is used as a music room.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt, a true "starchitect" (a star architech) in late 19th-century America, designed Ochre Court just only before he died in 1895. His client was New York banker and real estate magnate Ogden Goelet, who had the money to buy the best. Russell says the ceiling appears to have been painted in Europe on canvases, which were then shipped to Newport and glued to the ceiling.

"This is as good a painting as you could find anywhere in the 1890s," Russell says, adding that the exciting find may help the school to find donors for its full revealing and restoration.

"The core mission of Salve Regina is not the recuperation of cupids, but this isn't a piece of second-rate decorative schlock, that's for sure."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.