While old house plaster problems are unique to each historic building, with a few basic tools and materials and an appreciation of history, solutions easily present themselves. The Charlestown House had different basic problems: a steady increase in car and truck vibration on nearby streets, peeling paint, and water damage.
The second-floor living room suffered from its proximity to a main street and modern traffic. Cracks radiated from the corners of the ceiling toward the center medallion, thanks to the movement of the outside wall.
To determine if the plaster was still attached to the lath, I drilled several holes and judged the distance between the two. In this case, although cattle hair kept the plaster from falling, it no longer adhered to the lath. So the first step of my repair was reattaching the plaster. To do this, I injected an adhesive under pressure through the holes I drilled for evaluation, and clamped the area with screws and washers. This adhesive established a wide, flexible bond between the plaster and the lath that allowed movement, vibration absorption and preservation of the historic plaster. When the adhesive was set, I removed the clamping washers, raked out all cracks and holes and filled them with a soft mixture of lime and gypsum so they were flush with the surrounding plaster.
Away from the main street, the dining room's plaster ceiling suffered less from vibration than from peeling paint. Originally covered in calcimine, a water-soluble paint that was frequently reapplied, the ceiling was eventually covered with modern paint. Over the years, the different paints began to expand and contract at different rates, opening up cracks in the paint that allowed water vapor to re-hydrate the calcimine and release its bond with the plaster, causing the paint to peel. The good news was that a few passes with a wallpaper steamer removed the rest of the paint without harming the plaster below. The plaster was then washed, allowed to dry and painted. The main rooms' ceilings suffered from this malady and benefited from this simple cure.
The house's medallions suffered from the same problem as its ceilings. The medallion in the second-floor living room, marked by a fruit-and-vegetable motif, was moved to the dining room and a new medallion, suitably Second Empire in style, was installed there. To duplicate the original medallion, I removed the paint, made repairs, made a mold and cast a new medallion. On the first floor I used this same treatment on the three medallions to uncover detail lost to paint buildup and damage incurred when the house switched from gas to electric light. Once repaired, the ornaments were reattached with adhesive plaster as they had been originally.
The house's cornice work was sound but suffered from water damage and holes left behind by old steam heating pipes. In addition, layout changes required new cornices to match the old. For these repairs, in-kind replacements were the order of the day. Holes and cracks were raked out and filled using a mixture of lime putty and gypsum with a higher level of gypsum than in general plaster repairs. As the plaster started to set, I developed the cornice profile with a mitre rod.
The number one at-risk historic material in this country is interior plaster. Historic plasters can be fixed and preserved to be part of a cost-effective restoration process. Modern alternatives do not measure up in the long run to maintaining historic plasters. Sadly in the 20th century, maintenance was often considered an unfortunate side effect of house custodianship. In this new century people are now reaching back to preserve our collective architectural history.