Susan Buck, Paint Scientist [Profile]

Susan Buck: Interpreting the Interior of the Byrd

Screen-Shot-2014-12-21-at-1.02.12-PMAs the Byrd Theatre Foundation’s “Journey to the Seats” continues, extensive renovations will aim to improve both the fashion and function of the Byrd, and secure this Richmond staple as a historic landmark among American theaters.

Beginning with the HVAC system—a milestone set for Fall 2014—and ending with the highly anticipated seat replacement—tentatively scheduled for Fall 2017—the Byrd Theatre’s renovation process will entail functional updates as well as aesthetic enhancements.

As part of the visual revival planned for the Byrd, the interior finishes throughout the theater will be cleaned, repaired, and brought back to their original brilliance. To achieve this goal, the Byrd Theatre Foundation was fortunate enough to employ the help of art conservator and paint analyst, Susan Buck.

Susan Buck—who has worked on historical architectural landmarks such as Mount Vernon and Monticello—will use a process known as optical microscopy to help interpret the original appearance of the interior, as well as examine what changes have occurred through the years.

“there are a lot of abrasions… discoloration on the painted surfaces, and also a tremendous amount of dirt that probably comes from the street [which] has obscured what clearly was absolutely a brilliant interior with faux finishes, bright polychrome, bright gilding…”

“What I’m doing now is looking to find the most intact areas of early paint and later alterations on representative areas so that we can reconstruct what the interior of the theater originally looked like, and then understand how it’s changed over time,” explains Buck.

Using a small scalpel, Susan will collect samples from various materials throughout the Byrd—such as paint, plaster, and gilding—and will study the sections to better understand the initial pallet and the process of degradation that has occurred.

“[The] samples are taken to my lab, screened under a 45x microscope, and I caste the best of them in polyester resin cubes. Those cubes are then polished to expose the cross sections,” she continues. “The cross sections would be everything from the substrate at the bottom, to all the layers applied over time. You also would see dirt and cracks and grime.”

As Susan goes on to explain, these samples tell a story not just about color change, but also give us a look into the varying materials, and corresponding costs, throughout the Byrd’s history.

“Visually it’s very compelling, because you see the layers and the colors, but also every sample will tell a story about change over time, degradation, color change, and change in expense of materials,” she states. “[We’ll see] how a surface originally appeared and then how it’s evolved to what it looks like today. And also, it will give us some clues for how best the interior can be treated and interpreted.”

When speaking of the Byrd specifically, Buck notes that upon entering the theatre she could immediately recognize the need for restoration.

“I could see that there are a lot of abrasions and losses and discoloration on the painted surfaces, and also a tremendous amount of dirt that probably comes from the street,” she explains. “That accumulation of materials has obscured what clearly was absolutely a brilliant interior with faux finishes, bright polychrome, bright gilding, and contrast of reflection and matte. So I think we’ve lost a lot of that now, partly because of change over time, with grime and touchups, but also simply because these materials get dirty and accumulations of dust and dirt obscure what the original brilliant colors and pallet were.”

Recognizing that the Byrd’s interior has become much more muted and subdued due to use of the theatre and the natural aging process, Susan is confident that this analysis will help guide decisions regarding the best way to clean and touch up original decorations.

“This type of work will help guide the restoration, and there are now conservation-grade materials, which are much more stable—they don’t discolor over time, they don’t yellow, they’re completely reversible,” explains Buck. “So the choices now that we have for reconstructing historic finishes are much broader and really more stable and long-lasting than a lot of the traditional materials that were used.”

Susan will work with the restoration architecture firm, once selected, to oversee final execution of the interior finishes. The Byrd Theatre hopes to debut a refurbished interior by 2017.