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From August to November 2004, a restoration of the Northwest Garret Bedroom was undertaken. This bedroom is located directly across from Martha Washington’s Bedroom on the Mansion’s third floor. In July 2003 a section of the room’s plaster ceiling fell. Later that year, following Hurricane Isabel in September, more plaster fell from the same area. Luckily, no objects were damaged by the falling plaster. Another location of the ceiling suffered severe cracking and hung precariously in place.
A detailed investigation of the plaster revealed more extensive problems. Significant wood deterioration was evident in several areas of the ceiling’s lath. The lath are narrow, thin strips of wood nailed to the framework of the ceiling and are the supporting base for the plaster. If the lath deteriorates, the plaster no longer has a stable support structure and a danger of falling plaster exists. In addition, the plaster keys were broken in various places. When plaster is applied, some of the plaster squeezes between the lath and forms keys. These keys grab on to the backside of the lath and hang the plaster in place. Without its “hangers,” the plaster eventually succumbs to gravity’s downward pull and collapses.
The restoration team decided to take down the ceiling plaster for the following reasons: 1.) the failure was widespread and 2.) the plaster was a late 19th-century replacement and not original fabric. After demolishing the plaster, deteriorated, broken, and bowed pieces of lath were removed and then catalogued and placed in the architectural fragments collection. New strips of lath were installed where original ones were taken out. Using historic methods, lime plaster was made by mixing lime putty, sand, clay, water, and pig and cow hair. The traditional three coats of plaster were then applied. Whitewash, composed of lime putty, corn syrup, alum, and salt, was brushed on the new plaster to finish the surface. Woodwork in the room was repainted using paint made from hand-ground pigments and linseed oil.