What Do Ghosts Have to Do with Architecture?

Yep, you read that right. Ghosts have been seen in many rooms in Montpelier, but they might not be the kind of ghost you are thinking of. These ghosts are not going to randomly open doors or jump out and say “boo.” In fact, unless you are paying close attention, you would probably never see these ghosts. I’m talking about architectural ghosts. These are outlines of previously removed architectural features. For example, when a wall is plastered, it leaves white lines or ghosts in between the lath on the studs. These ghosts were very helpful during the investigatory phase of the restoration. They provided a multitude of information on the different phases of construction and the original location of various architectural elements that had been reoriented during later occupations.

Plaster ghosts seen on a stud during the restoration of the Madison house

Ghost Sighting Under Portico

One of the most prominent ghosts can be spotted right on the front of the house. Located under the front portico, an upside-down V-shaped paint ghost can be seen above the southmost door. You may be wondering, how did this ghost happen, and what can this simple paint mark tell us about the evolution of the house? Well, it can actually tell us a lot about the different porch generations. First, it indicates that whatever architectural element was located there was painted. During the painting of the element’s edges, the painters got a small amount of paint on the masonry, which created the ghost. From the shape of the paint ghost, it is evident that at one time, there was a small portico attached to this door. The gabled roof of the porch would have left that upside-down V shape. This was most likely the porch configuration during the first phase of construction when that door would have been the central entrance.

Image of the paint ghost above the south door, left behind from the original 1764 porch configuration

Ghosts Hiding in the Walls

The most abundant architectural ghosts found in the house were paint ghosts left by surbases, more commonly known as chair rails. These were found during paint conservator Susan Buck’s paint investigation across almost every room of the house. Even though the surbases had vanished around 1846, they left behind ghosts that provided key information to their restoration. Finding these profiles was no surprise, the team suspected their presence and targeted specific areas in their search. They also knew that all interior woodwork was installed prior to painting in the 18th and early-19th-centuries, meaning that the original profile for the lost chair rails should theoretically be encapsulated under the post-1850 paint layers. [1] As you may know, chair rails run around the perimeter of the room and come into contact with door and window architraves. These points of contact are where the team directed their search efforts. After gently and meticulously removing the top layers of paint with a mixture of paint solvents, the ghosts of the previously removed surbases were revealed. These outlines were formed when the architraves were painted, and the craftsmen had to paint around the surbase. From these ghosts, the team could take measurements and distinguish the pattern for each individual room’s chair rail.

Ghost found on the side of a window architrave showing the profile for the Madison surbase

Ghostly Discovery in Cellar

Another informative ghost was found in the cellar of the house. When removing duPont material from the cellar, the restoration team found paint and plaster ghosts on the thin strips of wood used to level out the ceiling of the cellar. The ghosts on these thin strips of wood, known as furring strips, indicated that the duPonts had salvaged this material from another part of the house. Many of the furring strips had a plaster ghost running across the width of the board. This indicated that the boards came into contact with a plaster ceiling and that they were oriented vertically in their original position. Once all the furring strips had been removed, the team realized that there was a white paint ghost that ran across all the boards. When the boards lined up, the ghosts showed the slope of a staircase. This told the team that the original location for the boards were in the enclosure for the North Passage Stair. The paint ghost happened when the enclosure was painted white, with the diagonal paint line showing where the painters hit the stair carriage. With further investigation, a ghost from the nosing and tread of the first stair was found on one of the furring strips. This provided all the information that the team needed to reconstruct the stair. Due to the frugalness of the duPonts and their reuse of these planks as furring strips, the restoration team was able to retain Madison material, identify the materials’ original location, discover the appropriate slope for the stair, and the proper measurements for the risers and treads. Without these simple paint and plaster lines, the stairs would have been restored based on conjecture, which would have left much room for error.

Images of cellar furring strips with paint ghost of Madison era stair carriage

Video footage of Mark Wenger discussing the ghosts found in the cellar that led to the reconstruction of the South Passage Stair  

We Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

Many other ghosts were seen throughout the restoration, each giving hints to the original design of the house. These included ghosts of door hardware, partition walls, mantelpieces, architraves, and many more. Without the information gathered from these ghosts, the restoration would not have come to fruition, as the ability to identify and replace original Madison material was a decisive factor in the restoration defense. So the next time you are at Montpelier, look out for shadows of architectural elements long gone because you never know what ghostly outline might be around the corner.

Written By

Tessa Honeycutt, BA
Architectural Technician

As an Architectural Technician in the Architecture and Historic Preservation Department, Tessa sorts and organizes architectural records relating to the restoration. She also aids in the management of the 3D model of the Madison house. As a historic preservationist, Tessa is passionate about the documentation of historic structures and the numerous stories they tell.

3 Comments

Leave a Reply to Patrick Campbell Cancel reply