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Looking Up: Repairing the Sun Porch Ceiling at Fair Lane

Because decades of water damage left behind chipped paint, ugly stains and peeling plaster, the ceiling on the Sun Porch was one of the most glaring repairs needed in the room.

Anthony Kartsonas, founder of Historic Surfaces LLC of Milwaukee, Wisc., and his team have set up shop in Dearborn over the summer of 2016 to fix the ceiling of Fair Lane’s Sun Porch -- its cracked surfaces crying out for repair and restoration.

A ceiling might not seem like a significant design element in a home as grand as Henry and Clara Ford’s Fair Lane, yet to Kartsonas, the ceiling reveals details about this famous yet humble family, their choices about how they lived their domestic life together and the history of a house that was well loved throughout the years.

Kartsonas’ deceptively simple mission is to eliminate the deterioration that occurred over the decades since the home was built in 1915. Water seeped into the Sun Porch in a variety of places, Kartsonas said, and the decorative touches found throughout the room have been lost due to a variety of factors. His job – but, in reality, his calling – is to determine the original paint scheme, uncover evidence of Henry and Clara Ford’s intent when it came to what they wanted on those walls and select, with the Fair Lane team’s assistance, the final paint to match the original look of this beloved family space.

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Kartsonas is something of a ceiling expert – with 20 years of experience and involvement on 80-plus significant projects that are either listed on the National register or are National Landmarks. He has experience consulting on projects involving the restoration and conservation of painted surfaces, wood finishes, plaster, scagliola and murals.

Think of Kartsonas as the Sherlock Holmes of Historic Surfaces. Understanding the historic appearance of the Sun Porch is an important step in interpreting how Henry and Clara selected the finishes on their home, Kartsonas said

The first step, Kartsonas said, is to study and investigate the paint and finishes, including deep, archival research into the home’s original receipts and other purchasing decisions, documents that outline the Fords’ style preferences and any first-person accounts about what colors and decorative elements the family wanted installed.

Kartsonas took paint samples from the ceiling and examined them under a microscope. “By doing that, you can see the layering sequences under the paint,” he said. “That helps us better match the original colors and determine whether any areas had decorative finishes.”

Kartsonas compared the paint’s DNA to that of limestone – you can see all of the layers, each one clearly separate from the last. Each one determines a period in the home’s existence.

The next step is to take those samples to a specialized laboratory and use a color system to provide a match.

“It helps us build a picture of what the spaces originally looked like in terms of the paint and finishes to see how they were decorated,” Kartsonas added. “The more information you have, the more it can inform the process. It helps you do a better interpretation of what it would have looked like on the day that they moved in.”

Why so much attention to ceilings and paint? Because every piece of this puzzle is important, Kartsonas said. “They all play a role in making a cohesive-looking room,” Kartsonas said.

Kartsonas says the paint and finishes in the house show some of what was in the minds of Henry and Clara Ford and their architect/interior decorator, William H. Van Tine,

“From a decorative paint standpoint, the house is kind of modest,” Kartsonas said. “I think that speaks a lot to who Henry and Clara were. The workmanship is excellent. Everything was done correctly. Yet it is modest. Although their wealth was a considerable level, the house has restraint. They wanted something that was handsome and showed the world how successful he was, but also to understand that they were still people with universal ideals.”

As he has been working on the Sun Porch, Kartsonas discovered significant damage to the original plaster, paint and other materials. Most of the plaster was not original, Kartsonas found, proving years of water damage from the leaky, flat roof above, which was repaired in 2015.

He also stripped the paint from the original moldings, bringing them back to life in the process. The work is delicate yet brutal, Kartsonas said.

“There’s so much to be careful of yet it also takes raw, grunt labor,” Kartsonas laughed. “There’s no shortcuts, unfortunately. It’s literally stripping the paint and take the time to picking off all of the paint remnants from carved element and moldings.

“It's time consuming. Fortunately, the curators at Fair Lane feel it’s important enough that we’re going to do it and do it right.”

By Karen Dybis for the Henry Ford Estate