By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Kate Gridley has long been an accomplished artist.
She can now add “sleuth” to her resume.
Gridley and her son, Charles Barstow, are putting the finishing touches on one of the final reconstruction flourishes of the Town Hall Theater (THT) in Middlebury: Ornate stenciling that will once again border the grand walls of the majestic performance hall.
It’s a job that has not only put Gridley’s artistic talents to the test, but also required her to pour through more than a century’s worth of photos, books, studies and Internet sites in an effort to recreate — as faithfully as possible — the Victorian-era stenciling once enjoyed by THT-goers. Only a few precious traces of that original stenciling have survived the 120-year-old evolution of the Merchants Row building as a town hall, movie theater, eatery, and Knights of Columbus Hall and now a performing arts center.
At one point, during its heyday, the THT boasted ornate stenciling on its ceiling and walls.
“The place was covered with stencils, as was the style of the day,” Gridley said. “We don’t have enough material to know what the stencils were, what the colors were, so we do not have to restore them. However, it was thought it would be nice if we did some stenciling that evoked the spirit of the stenciling that was here.
“These walls have their secrets, and we are not going to unlock them,” she added.
With that in mind, Gridley did a lot of research and referred to some already-done detective work performed by THT Executive Director Doug Anderson and a study of the building performed by the Shelburne-based firm Daly & Associates in 2001.
Those sources provided some renditions of common stenciling patterns of the Victorian era, often done during that time by itinerant painters. That information was combined with an old photo of a portion of the old THT stenciling as well as a partial stencil design uncovered during the building’s recent overhaul.
Gridley and Barstow were thus able to create a new stencil that borrows from the old. It features, in yellow ochre “Japan oil” paint, what Gridley called “a whimsical motif” that includes an arch, a semi-circle, a pineapple-type form and a tulip design.
“This room is already so complex, to add in a brightly colored stencil at this point would be too busy as a design element,” Gridley said. “What we have decided to do is go with one color and say — ‘this is in the spirit of the stencil that was here.’”
The stenciling will stretch along the lower and upper borders of the THT’s two main walls in its grand hall.
Last week Gridley’s son Charles Barstow was perched in an automated bucket-ladder, doing some stenciling work near the THT ceiling. Barstow was in town for two weeks on break from classes at Connecticut College, where he is majoring in art history.
“He has done a huge amount of technical work in this building and he’s not afraid of heights,” Gridley said of her son. “I also know he’s a careful and fastidious painter.”
“It’s not difficult, but it’s tedious,” Barstow said of the painstaking stenciling work. “I really like the building and I’ve been involved with it for a long time.”
The stenciling, to be completed this week, will be at the Gridley/Barstow family’s expense, their contribution to the THT project. Gridley thanked Don Mason of Weybridge for cutting out the stencils and recognized other area helpers who donated work.
“We have always been folks that have believed in the gift of labor,” Gridley said. “This is the perfect gift.”
Anderson agrees. He noted the family’s gift carries extra import, as it is the final, “crowning” improvement that will now allow the THT project to qualify for some of the key federal aid that had been promised.
“It will change the room in a lovely way,” Anderson said of the stenciling. “I think the choice (of design) she has made is brilliant.”