New Lime for Old Brick: Repairing the Lawn’s Tuscan Columns

September 20, 2023 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

For the Tuscan columns that line the University of Virginia’s historic Lawn, the future lies firmly in the past.

The columns, part of University founder Thomas Jefferson’s design for the Academical Village, have supported the terrace above the Lawn rooms for more than 200 years. Now, UVA’s historic masons are restoring them to their original condition – right down to the coats.

At their cores, the columns are brick – relatively soft, hand-made bricks, in fact – covered with a limestone render. The columns were initially unpainted, relying only on the color of the sand and lime to create their stone color. The earliest coatings applied to freshen up their appearance utilized a stone-colored, pigmented limewash. Over time, the pigment was left out and the limewash became a whitewash.

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But over the years, maintenance procedures continued to change. As pieces of the limestone render came off, they were replaced with Portland cement, and other types of paint replaced the whitewash.

“They used Portland cement and house paint on masonry that was never designed for these types of materials,” said Mark Kutney, an architectural conservator at UVA Facilities Management.

The Portland cement is much harder and more moisture-impermeable, whereas the lime render allowed the columns to breathe. Paint-covered cement trapped moisture inside the columns, and the trapped water seeped into the bricks. In cold weather, the water would freeze, causing micro-fissures in the bricks. The moisture also allowed salt crystals to migrate from the cement and lodge in the micro-fissures.

exposed brick in the columns
The Tuscan columns in the Academical Village have a brick core that was originally covered with a lime render. (Photograph by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Recognizing the damage that was being done to the columns, University officials decided more than 10 years ago to retore the columns on the Lawn. The latest row of columns is the last in that project.

Restoring the columns requires many steps. Historic masons first wrap the stone capitals and bases in a steam box to soften the paint, and then a mason in dayglow green bib overalls and a breathing apparatus sprays a mixture of water and ground limestone to dislodge about 30 layers of paint.

The paint on the column shafts is carefully removed with fine pneumatic chisels.

Once the paint is off, the masons remove as much of the cement as possible, while leaving as much of the original render as possible. The exposed original render edges are then temporarily wrapped in plastic to protect them from the elements and from people inadvertently breaking pieces off.

A lower view of the exposed brick and repair
A historic mason carefully chips away the layers of Portland cement that have been used on the columns over the years to replace the lime render that originally covered them. (Photograph by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“The original plaster is fragile,” Kutney said.

After all the inappropriate modern materials are removed, masons apply a fresh layer of lime render, a mixture of lime and sand. The historic masons must blend their own lime render, as did the craftsmen who originally built the columns. Kutney said while the masons may not replicate exactly the original formula, “it is close enough to the original render that it performs as did the original.”

The sand used to build the render is what adds the color. The pillars will again be stone-colored when finished and will appear tapered, with the render applied more heavily in the center, a classic design called entasis.

Construction worker kneeling down next to column with face covering
A historic mason uses a ground limestone mixture to remove layers of paint from a Tuscan column. (Photograph by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“These were built in the 1820s, at a time when there were no building codes,” Kutney said. “When you went to acquire mortar, you were looking for somebody who has dug up limestone, fired it, burnt it and created a quick lime. In the 1820s, the quality of the lime was due to the location of the quarry; it was a natural product. It’s not like today, where there are rigorous specifications for every type of cement.”

The masons are working on the columns between pavilions VII and IX, the last section of the roughly 160 Tuscan columns on the Lawn, which have been restored in a multi-year project. This last section of columns was supposed to be completed this past summer, but the heat delayed the work and the masons were not able to get back to it until the fall semester had started.

“We’re very sensitive to the students’ schedules,” Kutney said, noting that most of the cement removal work was done during the summer months. “Once they get into applying the new render, that’s not noisy. The project doesn’t have a huge footprint, so the masons can coexist with students. To do it right takes time, and we really can’t rush that part of it.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications