Since the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased Mount Vernon in 1858, the New Room has been restored about every 30 years, each time using new technology and methodologies to uncover physical evidence of the room’s appearance during Washington’s lifetime. This restoration, based on the cumulative research of 160 years, was no different. We made many discoveries that resulted in changes both subtle and striking to the room’s appearance.
The New Room’s south wall, before (above) and after (below) the restoration. Photographs by Walter Smalling, Jr.
The most immediately noticeable change is the new paint colors. These colors were selected after Dr. Susan Buck conducted careful microscopic analysis of the paint layers in room.
The restored ceiling and cove, newly whitewashed. Photograph by Walter Smalling, Jr.
Perhaps the most significant alteration is to the cove, which is now whitewashed to match the ceiling. Paint analysis conducted in 1980 had determined that the cove was green, but the current investigation could find no evidence of that color. Multiple paint samples taken from the original plaster on all four sides of the cove indicated that before 1869 the cove was always white. The overall effect is to visually associate the cove with the ceiling, rather than the walls, making the room seem taller and lighter.
Detail of the wooden molding, painted buff, and composition ornament, picked out with whitewash. Photograph by Walter Smalling, Jr.
We also found new evidence for the color that Washington called “buff inclining to white,” which is used on the wooden trim and wainscot. The linseed oil paint had sufficient yellow ochre pigment in it to result in a darker and tawnier color than previously thought. Paint analysis also indicated the composition ornament on the chair rail and friezes was whitewashed, and only the wooden elements of the trim were painted buff. The alternating use of buff and whitewash created a striped effect. The room’s friezes also received an updated color, a deep green made from the pigment verdigris.
Paint drying on rolls of wallpaper.
The vertical and horizontal seams in the wallpaper are much more subtle. Photograph by Walter Smalling, Jr.
Though we originally intended only to repaint the existing wallpaper, installed in the 1980s, consultation with our colleagues at Colonial Williamsburg prompted us to reexamine the paper and strive for a more authentic approach. The existing wallpaper had been installed sheet by sheet, creating a grid-like effect with visible seams. But by the time Washington purchased paper for the New Room, wallpaper was available in rolls created of sheets that were seamed together and painted before hanging. After examining comparable examples at Colonial Williamsburg, we decided to change course. Eleven-yard-long rolls of seamed sheets were hand painted at Mount Vernon using a green verditer paint before being hung in the room. The construction of the rolls before painting means the horizontal seams of wallpaper are less visible than the vertical ones.
Design from 18th-century pattern book in the Réveillon archive, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.
Fragment of wallpaper found in the New Room (above) and Adelphi Paper Hanging’s new reproduction paper (below).
In addition to the green verditer paper, we also updated the wallpaper border that runs around the chair rail, doors, and windows. Fragments of the original border were first found in the room in 1902 and 1950, and reproductions were made for two restorations in the 20th century. As it turns out, the fragments found in the New Room were incomplete, meaning the reproductions had been as well. In 2012, wallpaper curator Bernard Jacque identified the complete pattern in an 18th-century pattern book in the Réveillon archive at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Thanks to this discovery, Adelphi Paper Hangings was able to reproduce the wallpaper border in its entirety.
Andy Compton grains the doors.
The New Room’s four doors were also grained, a technique popular in the 18th century to make inexpensive woods (in this case, pine) look like exotic, expensive mahogany or other highly figured varieties. Graining takes three layers of paint: a pale peach base coat, a coat of varnish and brown pigment, and a final coat of varnish. While second coat is wet, the painter “figures” the paint to imitate the grain of mahogany. The new graining on the New Room’s doors is consistent with the high level of artistry seen throughout the room.
The west wall of the New Room, before (above) and after (below) the restoration. Cleaning the floor removed a 20th-century varnish that was trapped beneath the visitor carpet. Photographs by Walter Smalling, Jr.
Finally, we investigated the history of the New Room’s floor. Though its appearance is humble compared to the rest of the stylish room, the floor offered one of our most exciting discoveries. Documentary records indicated that in 1787 Washington purchased 24’ long yellow pine planks to be installed in the New Room using dowels and a blind nailing technique, meaning no nails were visible. This was the most expensive way to install a floor in the 18th century. The fact that nails are clearly visible in the floor today led to the longtime assumption that the floor had been replaced.
Examination of the floorboards from the below revealed that the boards dated to the 18th century. The identification of old dowels, cut in half, together with an analysis of the visible nails and current floorboard length (most of which are 24’, some having been repaired) led to the conclusion that this was indeed Washington’s original floor. It likely was pulled up and reinstalled with the nails you see today sometime between 1795 and 1820. With newfound respect, the floor was cleaned to remove grime and remnants of old varnish. Following 18th-century practice, no new finish was applied.
The north wall of the New Room after the restoration. Photograph by Walter Smalling, Jr.
As a result of this yearlong project, we are confident that the New Room is as close to its appearance during George Washington’s lifetime as it has been since the general himself was in residence. Please come visit and take a look for yourself.
Thomas A. Reinhart, Deputy Director for Architecture