by Mimi Handler
An excerpt from a Side by Side article
After our article about the Peter Wentz house (June 2000), we got a call from Old Village Paints. They liked the article but wished there had been more about the paint, for they supplied it. The paint research, they explained, was the work of Frank S. Welsh; we ought to talk with him.
Welsh is now the head of Welsh Color & Conservation, Inc., a business devoted to analysis of historic paints and wallpapers, but twenty-five years ago, when he was a young employee of the National Park Service and doing paint analysis on a freelance basis, he met John Milner, an architect whose specialty and expertise is historic restoration in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley and environs. Milner was assisting in the restoration of the Wentz house and told Welsh about it. Thus began Welsh’s favorite, earliest, and from a decorative point of view, most remarkable, paint restoration project.
He began a painstaking analysis of what was there, taking samples in each room of the house for trim colors, looking for indications of original color not degraded by time and the yellowing common to linseed oil-based paints. At the time, the house was being stripped of wallpaper, and outlines of remarkable patterns were emerging underneath. Welsh traced them and began research to determine whether they were from the period to which the house was being restored, around 1777, when George Washington visited. He concluded that indeed they were and was able to provide documentation of color as well as forms of decoration.
The Wentz house is managed by Montgomery County, whose county commissioners were charged with approving the recommendations of the professionals involved in the restoration. Welsh actually demonstrated to a commissioners’ meeting what he had discovered and was entrusted with the next step – repainting the house according to his research. It was a challenging task for a twenty-five-year-old, given the complexity of the designs and the fact that the walls had real whitewash on them, irrevocable in terms of mistakes, for they would have had to be re-whitewashed had he slipped up. The company that mixed the paints according to the dictates of Welsh’s microscopic analysis was later acquired by Old Village Paints, which has the formulas.
We asked Frank Welsh if he had found any precedents for the remarkable designs at the Wentz house. He said he hadn’t – yet.
If you have some paint history at your house to explore, Welsh’s web page provides a detailed paint sampling guide to uncovering it – how to take samples from wood, plaster, masonry, or metal, whether it’s an entire building or one decorative element that needs to be brought back.