The color palette of the Gov. William H. Gist mansion at Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site is coming alive, taking on what historians believe are its true colors, said park manager Trampas Alderman.
A restoration artist, Grace Washam of Clinton, recently finished painting the door, mantle, chair rails and walls of the parlor, where visitors to Rose Hill during the 1800s would have gotten their first impressions of the Gists.
The room is now the color of Southern royalty, a vibrant Prussian blue. The chair rails and mantle are painted in light brown, with faux wood graining. Metallic gold paint accents the mantle. The faux finish on the door into the room is a darker wood.
“We think she did a masterful job,” Alderman said of Washam’s work, showing off the room recently. “This (mantle) would be the focal point of the room, so it’s very elaborate to draw your eyes.”
William Henry Gist was elected governor Dec. 10, 1858, through secret ballot by the S.C. General Assembly. Two years later, he signed the ordinance of secession, making South Carolina the first state to leave the union before the Civil War. Although 1828 is the common date for construction of Gist’s Federalist-style mansion, Alderman said the homeplace could date back as early as 1811.
Above the mantle in the parlor hangs a portrait of Gov. Gist’s son, William M. Gist, who was killed during the Civil War in 1863 in Tennessee while fighting with the 15th S.C. Infantry. The room also includes a portrait of Caroline Rice Sondley, the sister of the governor’s second wife, Mary Elizabeth Rice Gist. It was likely hung in the mansion while the Gists lived there.
One of the park’s most precious artifacts — the family’s huge Bible — is also displayed in the parlor.
Over the years, historic homeplaces have been repainted, whitewashed, so to speak, in accordance with minimalist modern styles and decor.
But a home like the Gist mansion would have been a showplace for a wealthy planter like William Gist, Alderman said, calling for colors of a different coat. Everyone could afford white paint, but other pigments were more expensive and included in the palettes of those with money.
Faux finishes and graining were popular in the 1800s, during the time of Rose Hill, through World War II, Alderman said. Even if a door, for example, was made of expensive wood like mahogany, a person of means may have chosen to have a faux finish painted over it.
To create the Gist home’s new color scheme, paint scrapings from the walls and mantles were taken from the parlor, entrance area and dining room and analyzed under a microscope by Tina Reichenbach.
“This is a way of looking back in time,” Alderman said. “We’re trying to understand what it was like when Gov. Gist lived here with his family. Every antebellum home I’ve been in in Union County has faux finishes.”
The scrapings don’t necessarily reveal the exact original wall color, as paint fades over decades, but it gives the general idea.
The analysis revealed the walls on either side of the front door were reddish brown, and the fanlight above the entrance probably had gilded details. The molding around the doors to the parlor and dining room were black, while the chair rails in the dining room were a dark, Venetian green. The green would have likely had a marble faux finish. Small, roughly 1-inch squares, or “reveals,” showing the original colors after the scrapings remain on the mantles, walls and chair rails for comparison by visitors.
As funds permit, the rooms will be repainted in new color schemes, Alderman said. The parlor restoration cost about $2,500, funded by donations from visitors, with Sherwin Williams in Union also pitching in. The ballroom upstairs is slated for paint analysis next.
Washam started painting the parlor in July and finished about two weeks ago. Washam is a graduate of a historic preservation program in a partnership between Clemson University and the College of Charleston, but this was the first paint restoration she’s finished.
“I was a little bit nervous at first,” she said. “But I really loved doing it.”
But the faux graining wasn’t Washam’s first project at Rose Hill. In 2011, as a graduate student, she was looking for a project to work on and did an internship at the historic site, creating drawings and mapping the Gist family graveyard about a mile from the home. Alderman said he knew from Washam’s artwork then that she would be perfect for the parlor restoration.
Each year, about 4,000 visitors come to Rose Hill Plantation, which also includes rose gardens, the second kitchen built for the home, outbuildings, kitchen garden and a walking trail with views of the Tyger River, Alderman said. About 3,000 of those visitors tour the mansion, which costs $3 to $5 based on age.
Alderman has been park manager at the site for about 3.5 years, coming to Union County after working at a historic Spanish mission in Florida. He hopes, money permitting, that renovations and restoration can continue at the Union plantation home.
“This house has so many good stories to tell,” Alderman said. “This isn’t a job — it’s what I do for fun.”