When the Bird Homestead nonprofit, which operates the Rye Meeting
House, embarked on an investigation inside the historic building to
determine the colors of paint layers over time, the board of trustees
never expected to find any artistic images. “It is a special, but
diminutive building. We thought we would find a series of solid
colors,” said Anne Stillman, president and CEO.  

Instead, while carefully scraping off the existing ivory-colored paint, Walter
Sedovic Architects found a stenciled image of a fleur-de-lis. That
was just the beginning.

The nonprofit hired Evergreene Architectural Arts to investigate
further. A conservator revealed one surprise after another. The
maroon fleur-de-lis on a brick-colored background did not appear in a
single line of stenciling, as would have been more common, but covered
almost an entire plaster wall of the chancel in a pattern alternating
with a star. A representative section has been uncovered. Above this
area, which resembles wallpaper, the conservator found a border of
green stylized trees with golden fruit. These small orbs retain tiny
traces of real gold leaf.

A row of almost abstract circular images in paler colors borders the
stained glass window. Formerly an Episcopal chapel, the building was affiliated with Rye’s Christ’s Church for about 90 years. In 1959, the Religious Society of
Friends purchased it for use as a meeting house. It is now
a secular site operated for historic, environmental, and educational
purposes.

The building retains an interior cruciform plan with the elevated
chancel as the focal point. “It turns out that the chancel was highly
decorated during the building’s 19th-century life as a chapel,” said
Stillman. “We were astonished and thrilled.”

The newly discovered colors reflect the taste for earth tones of the
Victorian era. Wainscoting exists below the plaster on the three walls
of the chancel. It was made of a less expensive wood and subsequently
painted over. However, in the late 19th-century, it was painted to
imitate the look of oak paneling in a technique called graining or
faux bois. Copying an original untouched sample found under a later
molding, an artist from Evergreene replicated the color and subtle
graining design.

To avoid the risk of covering over any images that may still be
hidden, the organization has decided to defer plaster repair until a
full investigation is completed. The goal remains to reveal as much of the original stenciling as possible and to continue to restore the chancel to its 19th-century appearance. With this exciting discovery, the Bird Homestead nonprofit will need to raise more funds for continued investigation and conservation.

Members of the public are invited to stop by the Meeting House and see
the work-in-progress on Saturday, October 14 between 1 and 4 at an informal open house. Light refreshments will be served.