A Kitchen with a Polka Dot Ceiling
Visitors to the Jason Russell House often want to learn about the terrible battle that occurred there on April 19, 1775, and to scrutinize the musket ball holes still evident in some walls and the hall stair risers. But when they enter the kitchen, their eyes are drawn upward to the rather playfully dotted ceiling that seems quite out of keeping with the scene of mayhem and bloodletting that took place beneath it almost two and a half centuries ago. Then comes the question, “Isn’t this unusual?” The answer: “Indeed it is.”
Surviving free-hand painting in Colonial interiors is rare, but it is preserved on the ceilings (and sometimes the wall sheathing) of a few other 17th and 18th century New England houses. For example, the kitchen ceiling of the Buckman Tavern in Lexington is enlivened with roughly painted chevrons; the White-Ellery House in Gloucester displays a pattern of semi-circular slashes; and a portion of a preserved ceiling from a demolished house in Dartmouth goes wild with a combination of commas, chevrons and a few bold splashes of color!
The decorative technique employed in the Russell kitchen is one that Colonials called “spotting,” now sometimes referred to as “sponge painting.” Only a handful of similar examples still exist. The wall sheathing of the upper hallway of the Boardman House in Saugus reveals a fairly regular pattern of black dots of about one and a quarter inches in diameter on a light background, while the kitchen ceiling of the Sherburne House in Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, is boldly decorated with larger grey dots on a dark red ceiling. Closer to home, the inside of a small, bullet-scarred door panel from the old Adams House, now in the Arlington Historical Society collection, shows an irregular distribution of starburst-like black spots on an unpainted wood ground. In none of these instances does it seem that the painters employed an actual sponge; instead, they may have applied their spots by skillfully twirling a round brush or by stamping the pattern on with a blunt, semi-absorbent object such as the broad end of a corncob.
Spotting and other decorative ceiling designs reached their popular peak around the turn of the 18th Century, and the Russells’ spotted ceiling therefore would seem to support an earlier theory that the house was built the 1680’s. However, later scholarship and a dendrochronology study in 2012 suggest a construction date of 1740-1750. Such a late date for the Russell polka dots is not out of the question. In 1738, for example, the painter Samuel Heath charged the Province of Boston for “colouring and spotting a Large Kitchen” in the no longer extant Province House.
Our own polka-dotted ceiling probably owes its survival to the fortunate decision by a later Russell resident of the house to ‘modernize’ by plastering it over. Thus, it was safely preserved until the Historical Society’s restoration in 1924. When the old plaster ceiling came down, the restorers realized that they had, according to the Society’s Building Committee, “one of the best examples of ancient decorated ceilings.”
For a guided tour of the polka-dot ceiling, the musket ball holes, and other treasures, the Jason Russell House is open to visitors on Saturday and Sunday from 1-4 p.m.
Written by Doris Birmingham