Tying the Rooms Together: Heritage Restoration at PEH

Christeah Dupont, Assistant Curator, Point Ellice House Museum & Gardens

Between March 2020 and September 2021, the inside of Point Ellice House was closed to the public. During this  19-month closure, staff and volunteers were not idle: digitization, transcription, reorganization of the collection, and restoration projects took place. 

As part of my usual duties as Assistant Curator at Point Ellice house, I maintain the historic house and its collection of artifacts. I regularly search for invasive insects and other pests, conduct a weekly cleaning of the house, and monitor humidity and temperature changes. With no guests wandering through the halls, I had time to pursue larger projects, such as the digitization of archival materials , and assist with the restoration of several rooms inside Point Ellice House. 

In the 1960s, the last people to live at Point Ellice House – John and Inez O’Reilly – made a number of ‘cheap and cheerful’ repairs using primarily wallpaper and acrylic paint. Despite their best efforts, the repairs were not historically accurate, nor were they intended to be long lasting. By the 1990s, plaster cracks, stains, and peeling paint characterized the look of three rooms in particular, the Servery, Scullery, and Servants’ Room. 

Our restoration project began with important behind the scenes work. Climbing up into the attic, a plasterer repaired the “keys” that hold our plaster ceilings and walls to the wooden lathe. These keys were broken in several areas and in some sections only the wallpaper held the plaster up! Next, using traditional methods – the same used when this wing of the house was built in 1889 – the plasterer worked in the Scullery and Servants’ Room repairing the many cracks in the plaster.

Once repaired, the walls were then skimmed with lime plaster and brushed over with a white mineral primer. Finally, the walls were topped with a period-appropriate bright yellow “milk” paint composed of borax, lime, yellow pigment, and a milk protein known as casein. Throughout the paint removal process, staff and contractors discovered that different types of paint were used in different areas of the Scullery and Servery. For example, in the Scullery we uncovered a historical backsplash painted with a linseed oil paint to protect the wood from rot. Only when we peeled back the layers (quite literally) did we begin to learn more about the room and its use. Accordingly, we updated our plan for the room and reinstated this forgotten feature.

Restoration of the Servery required a slightly different approach. First, the plasterer had to steam and peel away the acrylic paint from the walls and ceiling. To our surprise, this revealed two historical layers of colouring – a yellow ochre and a bright blue. The blue colour (once known in England as “Dolly Blue”) is a type of chalk paint; this original paint prevented the 1960s acrylic paint from fully adhering to the wall, hence the chipping and peeling. 

With the technical support of Heritageworks Ltd., staff decided to keep the Servery in an “unfinished” state. Unlike restoration work in the Scullery and Servants’ Room, the Servery walls, with their blue and yellow tones, reveal many updates and repairs made over time. A new interpretative panel supports this work by explaining the who, what, and how of plaster work in early Victoria.

During these much needed repairs, we also expanded our restoration work to the hallways of Point Ellice House (images below). As part of the 1960s updates, the O’Reillys installed a thin brown carpet through the main halls of the house. We have now removed this carpet to reveal the home’s original wood flooring. These surfaces have not been seen for 60 years and their recovery gives us a much better idea of what the house looked like when the O’Reillys first moved into Point Ellice House in 1867. We have added a period-appropriate rug (that really ties the space together) and there are future plans to provide floor runners to the entire house.

With our operations returning to normal, I have returned many artifacts to their original locations in the restored rooms, swept away the debris of repair work, and hung new interpretive panels. The work of caring for a historic home never ends and we are already planning the next project. In the meantime, Point Ellice House is ready to welcome back visitors!

Special thanks to the Heritage Branch (Province of BC) for their financial support of this restoration work. Thank-you also to Heritageworks Ltd. (Kerry, Taryn, Ben, Gord) and Heartwood Heritage Restoration (Pat) who carried out this important work.

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