Sycamore Shoals Park receives grant to continue paint study at Carter Mansion

Published 8:42 am Monday, July 22, 2019

Most homeowners use paint the way most women use cosmetics — a touch of pink here, a dash of brown there, enough to improve the facade and make a personal statement. But owners of 18th- and 19th-century houses have come to understand that paint — the type, colors and pattern of application — is in fact part of the history of their house. And learning what colors and paint types the original owners used can make houses more what they were originally intended to be and even tell us more about the history of the house.

No one knows that better than Matthew Mosca of Baltimore, Md., who has done a paint study at the Sabine Hill House and is now doing a study at the historic Carter Mansion in Elizabethton.

Mosca is a nationally recognized consultant in the field of historic paint research and restoration. He has more than 40 years of experience in the field, focusing on identification of materials by microscopic and chemical means. He formerly worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and has served as an independent consultant since 1979.

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He has conducted complete research and restoration programs at nationally significant sites that have been recognized as major accomplishments by the American Institute of Architects, the National Park Service, and various other organizations. Previous locations of his paint research include Mount Vernon in Virginia, the United States Treasury Building in Washington D.C. and Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, in Tennessee.

Mosca recently completed a paint analysis of the first floor of the Mansion, and will now do a study of the second floor. Sycamore Shoals Historic Park recently learned that it has been awarded a Federal Historic Preservation Grant totaling $5,500 to fund the continuation of paint analysis at the historic house located on Broad Street Extension.

The Tennessee Historical Commission State Historic Preservation Office announced in late June the awarding of 32 matching grants totaling over $750,000 for various historic preservation and archaeological projects throughout the state.

In 2017 Sycamore Shoals Park received a $7,185 grant from the Tennessee Historical Commission to fund the paint analysis project at the Carter Mansion. The paint analysis was part of the restoration of Sabine Hill, which, along with the Carter Mansion are satellite properties of the park.

“Matthew spent a great deal of time at the Sabine Hill House going from room to room, door frame to door frame, anywhere there was original paint or surface,” Bauer said.

As part of the analysis, Mosca used delicate tools to scrape away layers of paint and wall coverings to get down to the original paints used at the home.

“It is such a detailed process of taking layer after layer of more modern paint without taking off the original paint,” Bauer said.

In anticipation of receiving the initial grant for the Carter Mansion project, Bauer said she spoke with Mosca about performing the same type of paint analysis at the Carter Mansion. “Once he saw the house he was fascinated by it,” she said.

“In the world of historic paint analysis, Mosca is truly among the very best, and his work will tell us more about the history of the house,” Bauer said.

“His research will tell us more about the house, how it came together. There are a lot of unknowns about both the house and its builder, John Carter, and Mosca’s work may answer some of those questions. He will be looking at the paint pigments, layer by layer, and create a history of the decorative finishes that have been on the walls,” Bauer explained.

“Thusfar, what he has found on the first floor has been very exciting. For example, he found a shade of green in the grand parlor that was the exact color of green and of the same pigment found at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. A shade of blue that had been thinned with white paint was found in a corner of another room. That blue color and the natural products used to make it was also native to Virginia,” the park manager shared.

Bauer explained that the paint colors may help explain more about John Carter’s connections with Virginia, where history says he lived before coming to this area.

“Just as woodwork often tells us something about the carpenter who did it, as to matching characteristics found in staircases, mantels, etc. the same can be said about paint as to the pigment and the natural products used to make it,” Bauer said.

Mosca will take samples from the Carter Mansion, take them back to his Baltimore lab to do studies, and then prepare a final report.


The Carter Mansion is one of Tennessee’s earliest historic homes and is not only a landmark in the county, but for all of Tennessee. It is supposedly the oldest frame house in Tennessee, built around 1775 by Colonel John Carter, who is hailed as the first Chairman of the Court of the Watauga Association, which, in turn, is famous for being the first free and independent community in the nation.

Carter was respected, in part, for his status as a gentleman; his education, his business acumen, his knowledge of government and his knowledge of law. The Mansion itself set John Carter apart from his peers by adding a glimpse of eastern finery to the rugged frontier of the Watauga.

Historical documents reveal that in 1775 John Carter entered a land warrant for the 640-acre tract, which included the land on which the house now stands. A North Carolina warrant, dated 1778, states that Carter’s land tract included “the plantation where the said Carter now lives.”

According to a paper by Jenny L. Kilgore of East Tennessee State University: “The age of the house is difficult to pinpoint, according to the 1974 study, because the house incorporates elements from three centuries. Seventeenth-century traces include high window sills, a plain, inordinately high wainscot,” and the house’s asymmetrical exterior. The Mansion exhibits eighteenth-century characteristics in its extensive use of paneling and classical orders and the profile of . . . mouldings and exterior chimneys,whereas the second floor exhibits very late 18th and early 19th century work in its painted veneers.

The families who lived in the Carter House have also repainted and redecorated the rooms to varying degrees. The floor on the lower level was covered by a modern floor at some unspecified date. Some rooms, such as the second-floor small bedchamber, seem to have been repainted at least once, while others have survived with the original finishes largely intact. The National Heritage Corporation study estimated that some of the interior finishes were changed in the Victorian taste of 1850-1890. The State of Tennessee completed the Carter House restoration in 1978 and the house now exhibits its original characteristics.

External Elements

The main entrance to the Carter Mansion faces the old country road that wound through the property, traces of which still remain. The back door of the house faces the Watauga River and leads out into a flat space on which many of the outbuildings once stood. Both doors have been re-created to match the originals: handsomely paneled and painted a rich, earthy shade of red-brown.

The house’s outer walls are thick and partially filled with a type of masonry called noggin. This brick infill did not offer any structural support, but did provide insulation and fire protection and kept rodents from infesting in the walls. Noggin also provided protection from enemy bullets — a grim reality on the frontiers.

When the State of Tennessee obtained the house, the original weatherboarding had been replaced. Fortunately, workers recovered a piece of the original, eighteenth-century weatherboarding from behind the west chimney, and, on the recommendation of the National Heritage Corporation, the state was able to replicate the exterior and refit the house in period correct materials. Unfortunately, the original shingle roof had been replaced by a metal one sometime in the past, and no original exterior door or window trim was found, but the state installed pieces that would have been commonly used during the late eighteenth century.

All three of the first floor rooms are covered in paneling, but the hall is by far the largest and the grandest. The ceilings are high and bordered with dentil crown molding.

The hall paneling contains some subtle oddities. In the exterior walls, the paneling below the chair rail relates to neither windows nor the paneling above, as one could expect from a house of this period. Additionally, it appears that the paneling on the interior partitions and exterior walls below the wainscot were completed first, and some form of plaster was applied to the adobe noggin in the meantime.

When the state was restoring the house, a top layer of paint was removed, exposing an old mural discovered on a flat panel of a chimney breast. The painting depicts three men in late eighteenth or early nineteenth century clothing strolling together on a tree-lined hill. On the right side of the scene is a large, columned porch. Although crude, the painting added warmth to the house.

Its colors are bright and warm. A surprising amount of detail appears on the diminutive painted men: the observer can detect buttons, shoe buckles, curly wigs or hair, and rosy cheeks. One of the figures even wears a smile! Similarities in palette and style suggest that the same artist painted both the upstairs and downstairs panels. Unfortunately, the identity and dates of  the paintings are unknown.

Descendants of John Carter lived in the house until the late 1800s when William S. Thomas purchased the property. The Thomas family once owned land directly across the Watauga River from the Carter House. The Thomases retained the property until the State of Tennessee purchased the house during the early 1970s.