Design detectives uncover layers of colorful history — “it’s interior archaeology”

PORT TOWNSEND — Walk down Water Street, and you’ll see the town’s Victorian heritage manifested in muscular gray stone and brick.

But a softer side of that heritage is hidden away in dark closets, above false ceilings or smothered under decades of subsequent decor.

“Most houses have three or four layers,” says Barbara Marseille.

Marseille is an interior designer who restored historical homes in the Midwest and coordinated the restoration of Port Townsend’s Rose Theatre.

While delving into Port Townsend’s colorful past, she uncovered a treasure-trove of Victorian secrets, including original wallpaper that was hidden for decades.

“It’s interior archeology,” she said.

It was Joe Calabrese who first brought the town’s buried treasure to Marseille’s attention.

A fine arts major, Calabrese came to Port Townsend after college because he liked old buildings, taking up painting and wallpapering to support himself.

The work often took him into Victorian homes, where he noticed gems shining in dark closets.

They included a magnificent gold-trimmed frieze of red roses in the butler’s pantry of the Dyer House on Adams Street, built in 1889. The ceiling and walls are papered in coordinating gold patterns.

“Can you imagine putting something like this in the pantry?” Marseille asked as owner Judith Lamas gave a behind-the-scenes tour.

“Only the Victorians would do it.”

Preserved under layers

As in many of uptown houses, the rooms in the Dyer House are covered with layers of paper applied by a succession of owners. One pattern, which overlays a floral design, Lamas calls greenbacks because of its resemblance to dollar bills.

Wallpaper was originally designed to resemble expensive wall coverings like tooled leather, Marseille said; the green rectangles were supposed to mimic tile.

With the exception of the kitchen, which was whitewashed, Victorians covered the walls and the ceilings of their parlors and dining rooms, sometimes using more than half a dozen patterns in a single room.

“Ceilings were always wallpapered, not painted, and certainly not white,” Marseille said.

Many elaborate ceiling treatments, however, were covered up by subsequent owners who sought to lower their heating bills by lowering the ceilings.

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