Paint and Plaster: Thompson Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church

A hand holding up colored paint swatche sin front of a church building
The paint colors submitted by the contractors for approval. The final colors will be altered slightly to be as accurate as possible.

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As part of the restoration process on the Thompson Memorial A.M.E Zion Church, paint analysis and plaster preservation are crucial to returning the church to the appearance that Harriet Tubman would have known during the her lifetime. Cultural resources staff are key to ensuring that this work is done with care and respect for the integrity and historical significance of the building.

The Paint

Because the church building is being restored to how it looked at the time of Harriet Tubman’s funeral, a key component is getting the exterior correct. This included moving a front window back to its original position a few inches to the north to bring back the original building symmetry, and replacing the asphalt shingles on the roof with historically-accurate cedar ones.
It also meant recreating the original interior and exterior color scheme. Paint analysis was conducted in every room of the building to uncover all the layers of paint to the church.
Over one hundred small samples were collected using a surgical scalpel. They were cast in resin and then cut to reveal cross sections of all the paint layers. Using a microscope under different lights, visible and ultraviolet, the colors were identified. This process, combined with archival research, helped the analysis understand the date ranges for each color scheme.
The colors of the exterior during Tubman’s funeral were painted in 1904. The main clapboard siding was changed from a light yellow to a greenish-tan, the trim was changed from medium brown to a dark olive green, and the decorative scalloped siding was changed from a light pink to an orange red.
The paint analysis revealed the colors of the church around the time of Tubman’s funeral in 1913, and these are being matched for the restoration. The painters submitted paint color samples close to the original and these were compared with Munsell color standards for accuracy. In the spring of 2023 the colors will be adjusted to be more accurate.

A green colored plastic sheet held up against green trim. There is a slight difference in the color.
The historically accurate color as shown on the Munsell Sheet is slightly darker and more vibrant than the paint chosen by the contractor.

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Conservators remove a large section of plaster from a wall using a rigid board for support
The process of plaster removal is painstaking: a rigid board is placed against the wall with tape at the base to prevent pieces falling. The plaster is slowly removed from the wall as conservators use the board to ensure that all pieces remain in the correct place.

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The Plaster

When the church was built in 1891, the walls and ceiling were plastered. In 1904, color was added; the walls were painted a salmon pink with a dark red stenciling around the ceiling. These were the colors of the church interior during Tubman’s funeral, and therefore these are the colors used in the interior restoration.
Fortunately, some of the original plaster is still preserved and visible, despite several decades of changing color schemes. Much of this preserved stencil will be on the east wall of the church, near the ceiling.
A small portion was also set to be preserved on the north wall, but the vibrations from work on other parts of the structure, like the roof, weakened the plaster further and it started to crumble. Luckily, an NPS conservator and the park's Cultural Resource Specialist were able to intervene. Together they worked to remove the remaining original plaster in several large pieces.
These will become a part of the museum collection as an architectural element from the structure. As a museum object, the plaster samples will be photographed, cataloged, and preserved.

An NPS conservator prepares materials to remove historic plaster and stenciling, visibly crumbling on the wall behind her.
Vibrations from work on the exterior of the church began to damage the historic plaster inside. The pink patches on the wall are from Harriet Tubman's lifetime, and feature dark red stenciled details.

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Harriet Tubman National Historical Park

Last updated: February 16, 2023