Friday, January 2, 2004

RICHMOND — One paper-thin, penny-sized paint chip can transport preservationist John Kraus back centuries in time.

Mr. Kraus, a decorative painter whose specialty is restoring original designs in historic structures, wrapped up two days of preliminary work this week at Virginia’s Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, built in 1788 and scheduled to be renovated starting in the spring.

He opened his last morning there by leafing through a collection of the building’s historic photos. His goal was to find an object — a ceiling ornament, trim on a wall — that may have survived from Jefferson’s days.

“There’s been some neat little details added in different time periods,” he said.

But he wasn’t interested in the objects themselves. He wanted their paint.

Mr. Kraus spent two days collecting about 20 paint samples from Capitol walls, ceilings and decorative objects, often gingerly scraping them free with a scalpel. That process only begins his work.

What starts with the delicate blades of a doctor and the sturdier scrapers of a painter often culminates in the precise creations of a draftsman. On previous projects, Mr. Kraus has removed layers of tiles, glue and paint from a surface and found majestic and centuries-old hand-painted designs underneath.

“It’s tedious,” he said. “But the results are incredible. When you find the treasure, it’s all worth it.”

When Mr. Kraus makes such finds, he creates exact, scaled-down reproductions of the designs. Those reproductions then can be colored and blown up, serving as blueprints for restoration projects.

Mr. Kraus hasn’t made such a find in Virginia’s Capitol so far, and his hunt through historical photos was an attempt to change that, at least during a future visit. The Capitol’s House and Senate wings were added in 1906, and Mr. Kraus has taken samples from both wings as well as from the earlier main building. But, he said, the samples seem to show that almost no original paint and ornamental decoration survived the 1906 construction.

“We may have lost what was originally here,” he said. “And we may never know.”

But that isn’t quite the last word. Mr. Kraus’ samples will next be analyzed under a high-powered microscope. The analysis will show definitively when the paint was applied.

“There can be a lot,” Mr. Kraus said of the information contained in a paint chip. “And then again, with the magnification that gets used ultimately, you can not only see layers of paint, but pigments in the layers of paint.”

Mr. Kraus’ work will help shape a $74 million Capitol renovation project scheduled to begin in April. According to senior project manager Bob Thomas, the first phase of work will focus on adding an underground access tunnel to the building. Work on the Capitol’s interior won’t start until April 2005, providing more than a year to conduct other searches for original 18th-century design features.

“The exploration of the rotunda is not done by any means,” Mr. Kraus said. “It will be interesting to get up high in the dome, in more obscure places.”

If the work fails to turn up design features no earlier than 1906, Mr. Thomas said project managers probably will restore the entire Capitol to its 1906 state. Doing so, he added, would provide a “balanced” look for the building rather than a “hodgepodge” appearance after the restoration project ended.

“Probably, at this point, there may be some [early design elements] somewhere,” Mr. Kraus said. “But finding original paint schemes at this point is unlikely.”

Mr. Kraus’ last discovery on Wednesday was a layer of canvas in the Senate gallery dating roughly to 1906. He said the canvas probably was used as a plaster treatment. It had been glued onto surfaces that later were repainted.

Project workers have made a few other historical finds, although they are minor. They include handmade nails and a handful of structural features that might date to the early 1800s.

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