Drawing on his many skills with paint and
plaster, Peter Lord restores old buildings
to their former glory
In Peter Lord’s business, it’s what people don’t see that shows he’s a master of his craft. As a specialist in restoring historic surfaces, the seamless lines on a wall or the ornamental decoration that perfectly mimics one that is decades older are testament to his ability to bring new life to an old façade.
A walk around Portland to visit some of its landmark buildings is also a trip through Lord’s resumé. He’s done work on the Victoria Mansion, the ballroom of the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel (formerly the Eastland), the Wadsworth-Longfellow House and the U.S. Custom House. One of his recent projects was for the Farnsworth Museum, repairing the Olson House captured in the iconic Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World.
Lord, who operates Peter Lord Plaster & Paint out of his home in Limington, entered the business for purely practical reasons: He wanted to spend more time on his music (see sidebar) and cooking in restaurants didn’t provide that. So, in his early 20s he started on renovation projects in the multi-unit apartment building where he lived in Portland, doing drywalling and light carpentry. As he expanded his work, people began to ask about his ability to fix their plaster.
“It was the 1980s and there was a building craze going on [in Maine] and all the plasterers were busy. Plastering was more interesting to me,” Lord says, so he did what anyone from the pre-Internet age would do—he got a book on plastering and taught himself.
“I read the book several times and it seemed to work,” he says. “Then I did a project that didn’t turn out—so I went back to the book.”
Lord’s education also included a week-long course on ornamental plastering in New York with the head of the plasterers’ union, which “took away my fear and gave me more confidence.” Slowly, he says, he built his business and his reputation among Maine’s preservationists. “I got to be known as someone who would do things no one else wanted to do,” he says, referring to his willingness to tackle water damage and seemingly small repairs that often turned into larger challenges.
“I’ve learned how to put things together by taking them apart,” he says.
While projects like the U.S. Custom House, during which Lord painstakingly made molds to re-create the keystones and egg-and-dart molding that border the ceiling before painting them to give them an aged patina and applying gold leaf, garner people’s attention, “most of life is flat work,” he says, trying to match what is already there.
Lord approaches each project—and New England is filled with old homes, churches and public buildings in need of repair—as a unique challenge, often beginning by asking those involved how far do they want to take it. “Do you want it good forever or a historic reproduction or just address the damage? You can go from a few thousand to $10,000 pretty easily,” he says.
While plastering is typically a three-step process involving a scratch coat, followed by a brown coat and then a finish coat, most New England homes only had two coats
because they used wallpaper instead of paint. The high pH in the plaster meant the walls cured slowly and thus couldn’t be painted for months, so wallpaper became the solution, he says. People also used calcimine for ceilings because it allowed surfaces to be easily cleaned from the soot generated by wood and coal stoves. The problem that presents now is that calcimine ceilings don’t take paint, so many older homes suffer from peeling ceilings unless the calcimine is removed or properly sealed.
Lord, who is a combination chemist, detective and artist, says it’s the problem-solving aspect that makes his work satisfying and keeps it fresh. “And saving buildings and history is gratifying as well,” he adds. “I’m doing something to keep a dying art alive.”
One of his most challenging projects, he recalled, was fixing the ceiling on an octagonal room at Castle in the Clouds, a New Hampshire mansion built by a multimillionaire shoe factory designer. The room featured 64 gypsum panels with a French applied plaster ivy design in them. The water damage was so bad, says Lord, “the paint was the only thing holding its shape.” In doing the restoration work, Lord created rubber molds of the original
plaster design, then created new curved plaster molds to attach to the repaired ceiling lath.
“The rewarding part was figuring it all out,” he says. “When it works, it’s magic. And there’s been a lot more magic lately.”
As passionate as Peter Lord is about plaster, he’s equally excited to talk about his long tenure with the Bellamy Jazz Band as its saxophone player. The group came together in the early 1980s, and Lord got involved while he was still cooking at The Grizzly Bear (which is now The Great Lost Bear in Portland) and transitioning into his current job.
Lord definitely sees a correlation between his music and his everyday work. “I think they’re intertwined,” he says. “With music, you play with feeling. With plaster work, you use emotion and feeling to mimic what the builders felt when they first put it on. You’re using artistic skills in both worlds.”
There’s also a bit of improvisation in both crafts, which is why Lord says he prefers jazz to classical music. “Instandard jazz, you can interpret things, just as you do with plaster. My brain just can’t handle the structure of classical.”
Bellamy plays a wide range of music, from swing and Dixieland to Gershwin and gospel tunes like “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” “We play all the old standards,” says Lord. “And when I solo now, I try to know the song and then just pick an attribute and go.”