Bath structure gets a facelift

Published 5:26 am Sunday, November 14, 2010

Contributing Writer

BATH — One of North Carolina’s oldest surviving structures has a “new” look, but it is one that harkens back nearly 250 years ago.
The Palmer-Marsh House, part of the Historic Bath State Historic Site, was given a facelift in October that has restored it to how it would have looked when it was built in 1751, according to site manager Leigh Swain. The house, which had been white, now sports a coat of Spanish brown paint more in keeping with historic accuracy, Swain added.
“When a fire occurred in the house in 1989, a study was done to determine what color the house was painted when it was first built,” Swain told the Daily News in a recent interview. “It was determined that originally the exterior was painted entirely in Spanish brown – that means the clapboards, the shutters, the doors. Sometimes Spanish brown was used as a primer, but preservation consultants knew that with this house it was the finish coat.”
The decision to restore the house to its original appearance was part of plans for an upcoming celebration planned for Historic Bath.
“In looking ahead to celebrating the 50th year of the Historic Bath Site in 2012 and 2013, one of the things I wanted to happen was for the houses here to be repainted,” said Swain, referring to not only the Palmer-Marsh House but to the Bonner House and the Van Der Veer House. “With the state budget, there was a chance that it wouldn’t happen right away. To our surprise, it was quickly approved.”
Further investigation of the historic structure’s past showed that it wasn’t painted white until an early 19th century renovation by the Marsh family, according to Swain. So no one in Bath recalls the house being anything but a white or off-white hue.
Swain admitted she was initially nervous about making such a drastic change in the house’s appearance.
“It was not a very subtle change,” she said with a smile. “Making the decision to take the house back to its original look was not something we took lightly and it was not something I was going to do without doing some research and getting support for making the change.”
Support came in the form of personnel from the Colonial Williamsburg site, as well as the Historic Bath Commission, the town’s Historic District commission and the town board, Swain said.
“The people of Bath were the ones who were going to have to live with the house and who had seen it white for so many years,” she pointed out. “I didn’t want to paint the house without educating people on the reason we were doing it. We made it accurate for the time period we interpret, and I felt like that was very important. While it may not fit our modern taste for what we think is a pretty house, it is dignified and representative of the colonial period.”
Picture Perfect Painting, a Durham-based company, was awarded the contract after submitting the lowest bid.
“They worked very hard at trying to achieve the look and they realized how important this change was,” Swain said.
At first, response to the change in the Palmer-Marsh House was mixed.
“I have had people very excited that we’ve taken the steps to make the house as authentic as we can, and certainly there are people who have shared with me that they preferred it the way it was,” Swain said. “But they understand the reason for making the house Spanish brown.”
Ironically, in doing research before making the change, Swain unearthed a mention of the house’s original color in 1961 correspondence between individuals instrumental in planning the initial renovations in preparation for the opening of the historic site. Even then it was noted that the house should have been a darker hue to be historically accurate.
Efforts to recognize Bath’s role in North Carolina history were led by Edmund Harding and other local citizens, Swain said. Those efforts bore fruit.
“The Palmer-Marsh House opened in 1962 and we became a state historic site in 1963,” she said.
Just the facts
*Designated a National Historic Landmark, the Palmer-Marsh House was built by Michael Coutanch, a Frenchman and merchant who served as a commissioner of Bath Town.
*Notable among the house’s architectural details is a double chimney located on the north side of the structure.
*The house was acquired by Col. Robert Palmer in 1764; he was a leading citizen who held positions as Surveyor General of North Carolina and Collector of the Port of Bath. A friend of Gov. William Tryon, Palmer also became a member of the Royal Council of North Carolina.
*The Palmer family owned the home for nearly 40 years until it was purchased in 1802 by Jonathan Marsh, a wealthy shipping merchant who hailed from Rhode Island. The house remained in the Marsh family for the next 100 years.
*A cemetery located adjacent to the Palmer-Marsh House is the final resting place for several former residents, many of them Marsh family members. But the oldest headstone there marks the grave of Mary Evans, who was related to the Coutanch family. According to local legend, Mary died of a broken heart after her husband was lost at sea.
Source: “Bath Towne,” a guidebook available for purchase at the Historic Bath Visitors Center.