JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 141 to 152)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 141 to 152)

U.S. CUSTOM HOUSE, NEW YORK CITY: OVERVIEW OF ANALYSES AND INTERPRETATION OF ALTERED ARCHITECTURAL FINISHES

CONSTANCE S. SILVER, FRANK G. MATERO, RICHARD C. WOLBERS, & JOEL C. SNODGRASS



2 OVERVIEW OF ORIGINAL ARCHITECTURAL FINISHES

By 1990, Garnsey's original decorative painting was visible in only five areas of the building (fig. 2). Although deteriorated, the surviving finishes revealed the complexity of Garnsey's technical skills and decorative vision. The monumental main hall, apparently inspired by the Borgia apartments of the Vatican, is embellished with richly colored marbles and breccias in tones of cool gray, green, yellow-ocher, red, and mauve. The vaulted ceiling (fig. 3) is composed of four principal decorative elements on a canvas support: intricate low-relief pastiglia that was gilded, polychromed, and toned with tinted glazes; four figurative mural paintings in lunettes, executed in oil paints; triangular panels painted with a mauve field, floral motifs, and green borders, the mauve field toned with a heavily stippled glaze; and polygonal panels executed in a pebble-textured blue paint, toned with tinted glazes and framed with green borders that are also toned with tinted glazes.

Fig. 2. Plan of the main (second) floor of the U.S. Custom House

Fig. 3. Detail of the vaults of the main hall, showing the four principal decorative components

The Collector's Suite, adjacent to the main hall, has survived largely intact, and it is a lexicon of American decorative finishes for the early 1900s. The richly decorated coffered ceiling and the cornices and frames of the walls are oak-grained and gilded plaster toned with several different types of tinted and stippled glazes. The lunettes of the coffers are painted in mauve and teal green oil paints, the latter colored with a dye.2 The lunettes are finished with slightly pigmented glazes. The background of the gilded and glazed dolphin frieze is blue paint that has been “antiqued” with a brown scumble.

In contrast, the decorated ceilings of the elevator lobbies on the third floor have been completely overpainted, with the exception of the low-relief pastiglia border. This border is painted in two shades of gray paint, with details in gold leaf. Both paint and gold leaf are covered with a toned stippled glaze.

The groin-vaulted and barrel-vaulted gallery of the third floor opens onto the vaults of the main hall. The walls of the gallery are embellished with canvas panels that incorporate several different decorative motifs in low-relief pastiglia that is gilded and toned with various tinted glazes. The pastiglia has survived largely intact, but the panels were overpainted brown. Exposures on site indicated that the original finish of the wall panels was a mauve field with a green border. The fields and borders were originally toned with tinted glazes. Overpainted brown, the barrel vaults originally were painted in two shades of gray and toned with tinted glazes. Only the groin vaults survived intact. Although less complex, their finishes resemble those of the blue polygonal panels of the vaults of the main hall.

Isolated concealed areas of the ornate plasterwork of the rotunda had escaped overpainting and suggested that Garnsey's finishes in the rotunda were a pale yellow base paint toned with a stippled rose-colored scumble.3 Every other space of the vast building, with the exception of the Cashier's Office, had been overpainted at least 10 times, leaving no indication of the original polychromy and finishes. The Cashier's Office was not included in this study.


Copyright 1993 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works