No ordinary paint job

Details of the dining room cornice at the Joseph Manigault house are vivid after old paint layers were removed to expose long-lost detail.

The more historic the home, the more complex it is to repaint.

In some of the more thoughtful projects around Charleston, repainting involves a host of decisions much more involved than choosing what color will look best.

These recently played out inside the Joseph Manigault House, a mansion more than 200 years old that is considered among the city’s finest neoclassical homes.

The Charleston Museum, which owns and cares for the house just across John Street, took a very intentional path that involved more paint research, the restoration of original hues and a decision to strip away some old paint layers to expose long-lost detail.

It wasn’t easy, or cheap.

The house already had been subject to paint analysis two times before, both of which indicated that some of its ornate trim was painted a sort of battleship gray.

But the first step in its most recent repainting was to invite back Susan Buck, a nationally renowned paint researcher, to do a fresh analysis, says Stephanie Thomas, the museum’s chief of education and interpretation.

“With all this new technology, we though there might be a new discovery,” Thomas says.

Architect Glenn Keyes says the relatively recent discovery of more brilliant colors inside the Nathaniel Russell House at 51 Meeting St. made him wonder if there would be a similarly surprising finding with a new analysis. That house is just a few years older than the Manigault home, and both are now museums.

Turns out, there wasn’t any shocker here, though Buck further refined the understanding of the Manigault home’s original shades of gray and white.

The crown molding in the dining room had been painted with a two-tone scheme, with white trim details on a gray background, but Buck’s new work showed it was all white.

Rik Snyder, the painting contractor who did the work, says going back to a one-hue scheme was a big change, “but I actually like it a lot better.”

The second big decision was sort of related to the first: How much paint to remove during the prep? Leaving all the layers of paint is not a bad default decision and certainly will help future paint researchers understand how the house’s appearance evolved over the centuries. But dozens of coats of paint also can erode the charm of a home like this one that has delicate trim details.

“The top of the mantel you couldn’t even see those details for all the paint,” Thomas says.

So the recent work arrived at a compromise. Some sections of trim were largely stripped of paint, while most others were not.

Keyes calls the decision to remove old paint “a philosophical issue every time.” So even when the property owner chooses to strip most paint to reveal the original details, Keyes recommends keeping at least some small sections unstripped.

“You want to leave as much paint history as you can for future generations that might have better technology to determine what the original colors might be,” he says. “It’s nice to see the before and after, just as an educational tool. Some people want it to be perfect, but that’s a case-by-case basis.”

Snyder says when it comes to deciding how much prep work to do — how much paint to remove and detail to expose — one question usually dominates: “How deep are my pockets?”

The work, which also involved a few other repairs, cost about $26,000 for repainting only the grand entry hall, stair hall and dining room. Fortunately, the museum benefited from the Charleston Arts and Antique Forum, and that helped cover part of the cost.

Finally, Snyder had to decide how to remove the paint. The choices were burning it off with a heat gun, using caustic paint remover or using the more environmentally friendly Ready Strip, which he used. He says it doesn’t work quite as well as the stronger stuff but has other benefits.

“It’s safer on everybody,” he says. “It’s safer on the wood, too.”

Buck’s conclusions produced subtle, not dramatic, refinements in the interpretation of the house’s original palettes. Specifically, some of the original woodwork color was a slightly warmer off-white than the current brighter white based on previous research. She produced a chart detailing the five main generations of paint on woodwork, baseboards, wall plaster and cornices in each of the three rooms.

She also recommended repainting the home’s three rooms with hand-ground paints specially made to replicate “as closely as possible the original composition.” That’s what historic sites such as Stratford Hall and Montpelier in Virginia have done.

But Keyes says ordering and applying such speciality paint would have made the job even more involved, so that wasn’t done this time. Instead, the paint was selected based on how well its sheen would have matched a hand-ground variety.

“As always, budget has to peek its head in there at some point,” he says.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.