Pearson hangar restoration takes pains to ensure authenticity

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Underneath its new black-on-white paint job, a hangar at Pearson Air Museum has a pretty colorful past.

The National Park Service is finishing a preservation project that will help reflect the hangar’s role in Northwest aviation history.

The restoration isn’t just a history lesson. Finding the suitable paint had elements of a science project.

Before the work crew could cover the building with a new coat of paint, historical researcher Sally Donovan helped uncover the past.

“We wanted to find the original paint colors. We took samples from interior and exterior window sashes” with a craft knife, said Donovan.

That included getting down to the substrate: the layer of wood right below the paint.

“Colors fade over time, so you have to pick places that were not exposed to light as much,” said Donovan, whose company is based in Hood River, Ore.

That might be under a window sill, she said, or at a spot along the side of a piece of trim where drips collected, forming thicker layers.

The samples were forwarded to a lab that used a powerful microscope to identify the layers of paint.

“You can tell a primer because of how thin it is,” she added. “You can tell if paint is glossy, if it’s lead-based, or if it’s a mixture.”

“The sample was probably six or seven layers thick,” said Alex Patterson, facilities supervisor at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

The laboratory report for the exterior window sashes showed a paint sequence of wood substrate, moderate reddish-brown, black, some greens and white.

As it turned out, oldest paint was not necessarily the right paint for the window woodwork.

“History gives us some leeway,” Patterson said. “We decided to go with black.”

The sashes and trim were a semi-gloss black color at the time when the distinctive yellow and black checkerboard roof went on the building, which is “the period of history we’re trying to interpret,” Patterson said.

The $80,900 project included removing or stabilizing old lead paint, which is now recognized as an environmental hazard. Workers inside a plastic barrier scraped away loose and flaking paint.

“When they got down to a solid surface, they put two coats of primer to cover the lead,” Patterson said.

The structure was built in 1918 as part of the U.S. Army’s Vancouver Spruce Mill. Pearson had been used as an Army airfield since 1911.

“At its peak in October 1918, the Vancouver Spruce Mill employed over 3,000 soldiers and cut and shipped 1 million board feet of aircraft spruce each working day,” said Greg Shine, chief ranger and historian at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The spruce was used extensively in construction of early airplanes.

The hangar was moved to its present location in 1924 by the Army Air Service. As a hangar housing several historic aircraft, it represents the site’s role in the golden age of aviation, Shine said.

Unlike the re-created buildings inside the fort’s log stockade, “This is a real historic structure,” Patterson said.

With the U.S. Army due to transfer Vancouver Barracks to the park service, Patterson expects to see more restorations.

“It is a good practice project for the same work we will be doing when we take over the barracks,” he said.