Peeling Back Layers of History

In Md. State House, Preservationists Hope to Return Old Senate Chamber Closer to Its Original Look

Architectural detectives in Maryland are intensely studying the state's Old Senate Chamber in hopes of restoring the room to its appearance just after the nation's birth.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009; Page B01

Architectural detectives in Maryland will spend the next year studying ghost images that splotch the walls of one of the nation's most historic spaces in the hope that the clues will guide the restoration of the room to its appearance at the time of the nation's birth.

For years, a mysterious water leak had plagued the walls of the Old Senate Chamber in the Maryland State House, the nation's oldest continuously operative legislative building. The water was causing ugly bubbles in the plaster of the historic room, where in 1783 George Washington stood in front of the Continental Congress and resigned his commission as head of the army.

Congress also ratified the Treaty of Paris, the official end of the Revolutionary War, in the room. And it was the home of the Maryland State Senate for 103 years.

In search of the source of the water, the preservationists last year peeled back all of the plaster and paint accumulated over the years in the Old Senate Chamber, revealing the bare brick beneath. And, stripped to its bones, the room began to share its secrets.

"What we have here is the closest thing we will get to having walls talk," said Elaine Rice Bachmann, director of outreach for the Maryland State Archives.

Clearly visible, for instance, are shadows around a podium where the Senate president's chair stood -- long hidden by years of accumulated paint and plaster. The shadows revealed that the raised platform once included two broad steps rather than the three more narrow ones the room has sported since a 1906 renovation.

High-tech paint analysis in the niche behind the chair shows that the room was originally a beige faux sandstone, not the lovely sky-blue color it was painted until it was recently stripped.

Protruding bits of wood set into brick around a large fireplace indicate that the wooden frame around it once extended much farther.

And the balcony that runs along the room's back wall? Well, the experts are convinced that the balcony looks entirely different from its original appearance.

The room was last restored in 1906, when the Maryland Senate outgrew the space and moved down the hall to a newly constructed State House addition. That year, the architects also aimed to return the room to its Washington-era state, all vestiges of which had been ripped out and replaced with high Victorian ornamentation in an 1876 redecorating. The 1876 changes were roundly panned in their time.

Today's preservationists said their forbears did their best, but they simply did not have the advantage of the technologies and methods developed in the past century.

For instance, the conclusion about the paint was confirmed when it was revealed that a chip of the room's original plaster had fallen off the wall during the 1906 renovation and lodged in a small hole along the room's floorboard, where it sat undisturbed until the removal of the plaster.

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