A Colorful Interior: Old North Church Begins Historic Paint Analysis

A Colorful Interior: Old North Church Begins Historic Paint Analysis

Steven Ayres, Vicar of the Boston’s venerable Old North Church in the North End, reached out recently to tell HBI about paint analyses that are just beginning inside the sanctuary of the historic building. The church’s plans, outlined below, could very well change our perception of the colonial interior and shed light on how Bostonians deployed color and decoration in the early 18th century.

If you drop in to visit Old North Church between now and early March, you will notice scaffolding in the rear of the sanctuary. Brian Powell and Melissa McGrew from Building Conservations Associates, a leading historic preservation consultant, will be crawling all over the sanctuary, taking paint samples and peeling back centuries of paint, in order to determine the history of decorating the interior of the church.

The Old North Foundation is conducting a historic paint analysis this winter to research the rich colonial color schemes used to decorate the church. Recently featured in the Globe, this project will be the second visit by Building Conservation Associates to Old North. Twelve years ago, senior analyst Brian Powell, surveyed Old North’s windows prior to their complete restoration. The buff colored paint now adorning the windows reflects the original color used in 1723.

The National Park Service conducted Old North’s first paint analysis in 1978.?Penelope Batchelor, one of the leading practitioners in the field, conducted the study. Her analysis will guide the current work. The goal of the research is to create a palette of historically accurate paint colors to guide the repainting of the church sanctuary, which is scheduled to occur in a few years.

The National Park Service 1978 historic structures report indicates that the colonial color scheme of the church sanctuary was much more vibrant than the current mix of white and soft pastels. For example, the front of the galleries would have been painted in a faux wood, similar to the faux wood treatment on the church’s 1756 organ, the columns may have been marbleized, and painted cherubs adorned the arches above the galleries. The current color scheme, dating to the early 1990s, represents a tiptoeing away from an all white colonial revival palette, dating back to the last major restoration of the church in 1912.

Historic paint analysis is a blend of scientific and historic research. Paint samples will be removed from the church and studied under high-powered microscopes in a controlled laboratory setting. The chemical composition of each paint layer and of the layers of soot in between each layer can be examined. That information can be cross-referenced with the church’s archival records. Minutes from church vestry meetings reveal when elements of the sanctuary were repainted and often what color was used. The archives can help the paint analysts make educated guesses about the painting of fabric that is no longer original. For example, the wine glass pulpit, built in 1912, is the fifth or sixth pulpit to grace the church.

Building Conservation Associates will be collecting paint samples for about two months. They are uncovering one of the colonial era cherubs adorning the arches to test the feasibility of restoring those decals. Any interesting discoveries made during their research will be posted to the Old North Facebook page. The scaffolding will be removed well before Holy Week and Easter. The public is welcome to stop by to observe the research. The church will be open during regular business hours, 10 to 4 in January and February. Updated pictures will be posted regularly on the Old North Church Facebook page.

The Old North Foundation thanks the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Freedom Trail Foundation, and an anonymous foundation for their generous support of this historic paint analysis. The results will be shared with the public later in 2016 and will guide the repainting of the church in about three years.? The Old North Foundation is currently raising millions of dollars to fund a major restoration of the church, in anticipation of the church’s three hundredth birthday in 2023. For more information about supporting the upcoming capital campaign, contact development@oldnorth.com.