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This photograph from 1900 is a helpful guide for interpreting the early paint evidence remaining on representative elements in the Entrance Hall and the stair landing.

Telfair Museums remains committed to the authentic historic preservation of each of our buildings. This year, one major focus at Telfair Academy was to bring the Entrance Hall and Drawing Room back to their original paint schemes from when the museum first opened to the public in 1886. But before we could do that, our Buildings Curatorial staff had to do some digging to determine exactly what those colors were!

In July 2019, our curatorial staff hired paint analyst Dr. Susan Buck of Williamsburg, Virginia to conduct an analysis of paint samples using cross-section paint microscopy. This process reveals an amazing amount of information, based on just a tiny sample. By cutting out a small piece of each surface being analyzed, Dr. Buck was able to uncover a chronology of the paints used in the two rooms over the years.

The process was far from simple. Samples were removed from corners of the walls, woodwork, and Entrance Hall dome with a scalpel, and each sample was placed in a labeled bag and photographed for reference. When Dr. Buck returned to her lab in Virginia with the samples, they were examined under a microscope, and the samples that retained the most complete layers of paint were cast into polyester resin cubes for permanent mounting. The cubes were polished for cross-section microscopy analysis, which is where the resin cube is cut at an angle to better reveal the layers of paint from years past.

Dr. Buck analyzed paint colors dating all the way back to the 1818 Telfair family mansion designed by British architect William Jay. Her investigation provided insights into the different periods of decoration in these spaces and identified the later coats of paint that date to the 1886 conversion of the house into the first public museum in the South, after the building had stood vacant for nearly ten years.

Once she had determined which layers of paint were from the museum’s opening years, those layers were separated out for polarized light microscopy analysis. This analysis distinguishes otherwise identical layers often found in architectural samples, such as multiple layers of the same paint or varnish. To collect a pigment sample for this process, a surgical scalpel was used to collect a small scraping from a clean area of paint. The blade was then pressed and pulled across a clean glass microscope slide, dispersing the pigment particles across the surface. The pigments were then permanently mounted for analysis under a microscope, and the original colors of the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences were revealed!

new paint colors of Telfair Academy Entrance Hall


The below are the results of Dr. Buck’s analysis:

  • Empire Gold (Sherwin Williams) – Entrance Hall domes, upper walls, and cornice; tannish yellow
  • Boston Brick (Benjamin Moore) – lower walls of Entrance Hall; dark red
  • Swiss Coffee (Benjamin Moore) – Entrance Hall frieze; white
  • Marsh Brown (Benjamin Moore) – ironwork on staircase and woodwork in Entrance Hall and Drawing Room; medium brown
  • Wilmington Tan (Benjamin Moore) – base coat for bronze powder paint on pilasters, columns, and entablature; dull yellow

So far, we have repainted the wall of the grand staircase and the back dome of Telfair Academy. We will continue our painting of the Entrance Hall and will build on these findings to include the details of the stair balustrade and other decorative elements in the upcoming year!

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