Preservation Month at the Old State House (Part III)

May is Preservation Month, a chance to celebrate the historic buildings that make up our cultural landscape, and to honor the continued work that is done to maintain this building. At the Old State House, we are taking this opportunity to look back on some of the preservation and restoration projects that the Society has completed in the last decade. Follow along as Matt Ottinger, our Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation, highlights four of our most important projects to maintain this iconic 300+ year old building. Catch up by reading Matt's first post and second post.
 

Restoration of Whitmore Hall


During the 18th century the first floor of the Old State House was largely an open hall, with a row of columns down the middle and two stairways with small offices beneath them, dividing the expanse approximately into thirds. Now known as Whitmore Hall, this space served as a merchants’ exchange, and in this capacity also served as a place to exchange news and political views, particularly about the actions of the legislature and the Royal Governor upstairs. During the 19th century, two partition walls were erected to divide the space on the east end of the first floor. There was a wall crossing north to south dividing the space in half, and then an east-west wall on one side of the north-south wall. Those walls, however, were shortened in 1903, after construction of the subway station beneath this part of the building required that the first floor be raised.

Whitmore Hall, looking NE before restoration
A 2007 National Endowment for the Humanities panel of scholars and community members proposed opening up the first floor as much as possible, in order to restore some sense of the merchants’ exchange. Contributing to the 18th century feel of the building would be the primary goal, but the panel also suggested that removing the walls in Whitmore Hall would aid in setting the building in a place.

After receiving approval, the project got underway in early 2009. We opened up a few exploratory holes in the ceiling of the space, and what we found surprised us. On one hand, we confirmed that the partition walls definitely were not load-bearing. On the other hand, we found that the ceiling had pulled away from the joists by as much as four inches.

Whitmore Hall, looking NE after restoration
In the next few days, in addition to the engineer and our architects, we had several professionals consult on this problem. The consensus was that the entire ceiling in this section of the building was not structurally sound and should be replaced. The outermost layer of plaster dated to the 1980s, with metal lathe. Above that was a horsehair plaster layer with wood lathe, dating to 1882. While it was not possible to retain the horsehair plaster and wood lathe without compromising structural integrity, we did retain the ceiling framing, and added additional support. We were also able to retain the 1882 plaster molding running along the perimeter of the room.

Removing the old plaster allowed us to examine and document the ceiling’s support system, including four 13” x 13” wooden girders spanning about 34 feet, dating to 1748. One is spaced between each window, spanning from the north wall to the south wall, throughout the first floor. The girders are among the building’s oldest surviving architectural elements, and the four in this section of the building were in quite good shape. One girder had to be repaired and sistered with steel I-beams as it had been previously cut and patched with wood. As part of the project, we installed a viewing panel to allow visitors to see one of these massive old beams for themselves.

We even left clues as to how the room had been previously divided:
  • The Douglas Fir floor boards that run perpendicular to the rest of the floor to signify the wall that once ran east-west through the space.
  • The furthest east column was left unique and does not match the others, as it was installed at a later date and is a reminder of the division.
  • We chose not to continue the center beam that runs along the column line in Whitmore Hall, but the termination of it will be a trace of the former division.
  • The “floor rail” in the old Preservation Room was retained along the east and north walls as a reminder of the space having once been used for an office.
At this time we also undertook the restoration of the medallion in Representatives Hall. Water damage to the ceiling had prompted an investigation of the historic medallion, and it was found to be in need of some minor repairs and securing. Conservator Louise Freedman of L.H. Freedman Studios (a division of Boston Creative Inc.) was brought in to restore the medallion. Originally thought to be plaster, the medallion was actually found to be made of carved wood. Dating to the 1882 renovation of the Old State House by George Clough, the medallion was covered in multiple layers of paint. The paint was scraped off by hand over the course of three days. The wood was then sealed and an epoxy was injected behind the medallion to re-secure it to the ceiling. It was then primed and painted. The final step was to spread a tinted glaze over the medallion to highlight the carving.


Check back next week for our final installment of our Preservation Month series!

By Matt Ottinger, Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation