Sherlock Holmes of paint does his detecting from a base in Baltimore

April 11, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

Meet Matthew John Mosca, a Baltimore paint detective.

Bearing microscopes, scalpel, X-acto knives, surgical gloves, magnifying glass, camera, notebooks, sandpaper, mineral oil to resaturate paint, hand-held illuminated magnifier and coin envelopes to hold samples, he enters historic buildings seeking to solve the multilayered mysteries of finish and texture, bronzing powders and white lead, stencils and gold leaf, distemper and linseed oil -- all things paint.

Technically, Mr. Mosca, 44, is a historic paint researcher, but in spirit he is a Travis McGee, a Sherlock Holmes, a Philip Marlowe, of hue and pigment -- only not as world-weary.

"When I was in college, the field hardly existed," he says. "It wasn't until I joined the staff of National Trust for Historic Preservation that I got interested." Now he says there may be 100 others like him.

Some of the places locally with the Mosca mark include Camden Station, Lovely Lane United Methodist Church and Lloyd Street Synagogue. Among other more exotic cases -- or at least more nationally known -- are Mount Vernon, the Hermitage near Nashville, Tenn., Warner Theatre and the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, and the Rockwood Museum in Wilmington.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards already had been built to match the red brick of Camden Station and the B&O Railroad Warehouse when the Cho, Wilks and Benn architectural firm hired him to examine "this funny-looking brown paint at Camden Station on bricks where an addition had been removed," Mr. Mosca says.

"The Maryland Historical Trust asked us if we would have a paint analysis done before we removed all layers so they would have a record of the paint," says George Holback, the architect in charge.

Mr. Mosca found a section that had been very different in the 1850s from the red brick building of today. "The bricks were painted brown to look like brownstone," he says.

He does not suggest Oriole Park should have been painted brown to match the original Camden Station. "But at least it would have been an option," he says.

Mr. Mosca offers options. He can take them as far as the client wants.

The clients of historic paint researchers include not only large institutions but also private homeowners who want a home with historically correct paint. Mr. Mosca says his charges are $150 a sample (sometimes several are needed in a room) or $55 an hour.

Time depends on client

"How much time it takes depends on what the client wants to know," he says amid the renovation of the 1923 Oakenshawe end-of-row house he moved into before Christmas. "If he wants to know the first finish, it's fairly simple. In other cases, the second or third finish might be most significant. That takes more work."

After the samples are collected, Mr. Mosca examines the quarter-inch paint squares and small pieces of wood under a three-dimensional stereomicroscope, does chemical analysis in his laboratory, checks pigments with a polarized light microscope and presents the client a detailed written report.

"In some cases, it can't be done the way it was. Then, maybe we can manipulate modern materials to achieve the same effect. Or, maybe I just recommend the best available Benjamin Moore paint."

At Lovely Lane, the stone church at St. Paul and 22nd streets that is the work of architect Stanford White, Mr. Mosca stands with Pastor Errol G. Smith near the south wall of the sanctuary. Shades of red cover a section of the wall, contrasting with the beigy surrounding walls.

"I painted this myself to give an idea of what Stanford White had in mind," Mr. Mosca says. "Paint finishes were part of the effect."

In the Lovely Lane of 1887, the red walls, growing lighter on the way up, met a now-water-damaged shallow dome ceiling painted on blue canvas as a star-filled sky.

Mr. Mosca did his research and painted the wall section in 1982 in preparation for restoration tied to the 1984 Methodist bicentennial. Then the church's money ran out. Now, Mr. Smith says, Lovely Lane is about to embark on an $8 million national fund-raising campaign.

"If we're successful, I hope Matthew can get back to work in here," the pastor says.

Although Mr. Mosca did his research on Lovely Lane 11 years ago, he refers to the project as being at "mid-point." He can wait, he says.

Mr. Mosca, soft-spoken and a casually impeccable dresser with black hair, seems imbued equally with patience and enthusiasm.

"He was willing to go out there and climb all over the place to get his samples," Mr. Holback says. "His written report was thorough and exact. He's a real sleuth."

The 1845 Lloyd Street Synagogue, at 11 Lloyd St. east of downtown, also was a 1992 project. "Lloyd Street needs to be more famous than it is," Mr. Mosca says. "It's the third-oldest synagogue in the country."

The synagogue also is the oldest in Maryland. It had extensive remodeling in 1871, says Bernard Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland.

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