Craftspeople Restoring Jefferson’s Plaster Ceilings to the Lawn Colonnades

July 7, 2023 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

Historic plasterers at the University of Virginia are using some modern techniques to restore a part of Thomas Jefferson’s historic Academical Village.

Plasterers are combining traditional lime-based plaster, reinforced with a goat-hair binder, with modern metal framework to reconstruct the ceilings over the colonnade between pavilions VIII and X. Jefferson designed the colonnades with ceilings, but they were removed in the 1830s when the colonnade roofs were replaced, according to Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner with the Office of the Architect.

“The ceilings make the colonnades into rooms,” Hogg said. “It gives a sense of a more finished space.”

The Office of the Architect and Facilities Management developed a multi-year project to restore the ceilings more than a decade ago and have since completed ceiling restoration on west side of the Academical Village.

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Ceiling of Colonnade
The first coat of plaster is called the “scratch coat” because after it is applied, the plasterers score the surface to give the next application a rough surface to which to adhere. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“The ultimate goal is returning the Lawn to its appearance from the original construction period as Thomas Jefferson would have known it,” said James Zehmer, senior historic preservation project manager with Facilities Management’s capital construction and renovations’ department. “And a plaster ceiling at the colonnades is part of that appearance.”

Recently, plasterers Brent Ryder, Brian Helmick, Robby Kolb and Walker Shifflett stood on a scaffold, working above their heads to carefully slather a second layer of plaster onto the “scratch coat” – so called because it is scored to give the second application something to which it can adhere.

They worked in sections, applying the plaster, then smoothing it with a long, aluminum screed. Each layer cures for several days before the next application is made. After the first two coats dry, a thin, smooth finish coat is applied. The finished, lime-based plaster breathes and will not need painting.

Among the modern equipment being used is a mixing machine that makes the basic lime plaster. The workers then mix in goat hair – a binding agent that is not visible in the finished product – by hand before applying it to the ceiling.

Workers plastering the Colonnade ceiling
Plasterers Brian Helmick and Robby Kolb work with a blend of traditional and modern elements to recreate a Jeffersonian ceiling. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications).

In the first ceiling restoration between pavilions VII and IX, the workers used metal joists to hold the metal lath – basically a heavy-gauge screen – for the ceiling structure.

“After that we switched to wood joists and wood lath for a more traditional approach,” Zehmer said. “But what we found is that while we used a more traditional approach, it gave us a more traditional appearance, and there was a lot of cracking. So, in the spirit of learning from ourselves, we’ve switched back to metal joists and metal lath, which won’t expand and contract with humidity and twist and turn, which is what was happening on some of our other ceilings.”

The metal lath makes a good surface to hold the plaster.

“The wire mesh has a rib in it, which adds rigidity and structural support,” Zehmer said. “It is screwed tight in a regular pattern to the ceiling joists. And then wherever they overlap, they use a piece of wire and stitch it together to the next piece just to make sure we don’t have any little sags or funny edges. When you push the first coat of plaster up into the metal lath, it does what’s called keying. The plaster squishes through the lath and then reconnects with itself. And so the goat hair helps in that process, in that it gives a physical binder. It’s not just the wet mud of the plaster holding it up there.”

Workers with wheelbarrow of plaster
After the lime-based plaster is mixed in a machine, the plasterers add goat hair as a binder. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Matt Proffitt, the historic mason supervisor, said the plaster takes 45 days to fully cure.

Initially, the work crews tried to repair the colonnade roof and build the ceilings at the same time, but soon found that did not work.

View down the hall of the plaster process
University of Virginia plasterers work on restoring the colonnade ceiling between pavilions VIII and X to Jefferson’s vision. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Because the plaster is really susceptible to vibrations, we learned pretty quick that we couldn’t have people working on the roof project at the same time,” Zehmer said. “And it was actually pushing the project way into the fall, to the end of October in some cases. And we really felt like that wasn’t fair to the Lawn students.”

The workers now alternate, restoring a roof and rail one year and then plastering the ceiling underneath the following year. Last year, the historic carpenters restored Jefferson’s flat roof and railing over the colonnade between pavilions VIII and X.

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Proffitt enjoys the sense of historic place in the work he is doing.

“I like the historical side of it,” Proffitt said. “It’s gratifying doing something where we are bringing it back to the idea Jefferson had for this place and restoring it to what it looked like in the 1820s.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications