There was no Agatha Christie-like crime scene at the Liberty Theater Wednesday, but the detectives inside were bent on solving a mystery nonetheless: the case of the original paint.

Armed with thick-rimmed magnifying glasses, razor blades and a color-correcting microscope, SRG Partnership and Clatsop Community College agents scraped at color and plaster to try to determine just what shades the theater was painted in 1920s when the building opened.

Head architect Skip Stanaway of SRG Partnership, the firm entrusted with the restoration project, said it was massive "investigative work."

Stanaway was among the SRG architects and CCC art students patiently investigating the Liberty's chronochronology, or the history of it's paint.

Because the theater is on the National Historic Registry, the walls - now splashed in creamy blues, pinks and terra cotta reds - will be returned to their original color motif.

"You really want to try and represent what the past was like," said architect Jim Wilson, who has a master's degree in historic preservation. "If you don't do that, you may as well go to Disneyland."

From left, historic consultant Peter Meijer, Skip Stanaway, head architect for SRG Partnership, and Clatsop Community College student Bryan Estoos look at samples using a magnifying glass and theorize about the paints in the lobby of the Liberty Theater.

LORI ASSA-The Daily AstorianIn the dim lobby, ladders stretched toward the showy ornamentations above door entrances, and floodlights lit up the work areas as the team skinned and scratched their way to the original architect's vision.

"We're finding there really isn't much variation of color," Stanaway said.

Stanaway said it appears that the theater was painted in a simple, Venetian style, with subtle colors.

The scheme, he said, was either an effort to tie the colors of the building to its design, or a sign of the times, namely, the poverty of the Great Depression.

"It was 1929 and by 1930 maybe everyone was worried about finances and (the project) was dumbed down," Wilson said. "It's important to understand how immediate its impact was felt."

Plaster crumbs flaked into Peter Meijer's cupped hand as he took another scrape from the faux marble column.

Meijer, a historic consultant with SRG, is the person responsible for determining the original color through experience, what he can see, and a little bit of intuition.

"We don't know if the column was decorated over time," he said, looking at the piece and going back to the sample area to take a closer look.

Jocelyn Helgerson, also an SRG architect, is assigned the task of matching the paint chip color the color index.

She peered into the microscope at a piece from the base of a wall and saw red, peach, off-white and plaster. She matched the off-white color with a card from the Valspar American Tradition index. Valspar, a 200-year-old company with a line of historic paint colors, is donating the paint for the project.

She matched a ceiling sample to another color. The ceiling appears to never have been painted, but the original plaster looks like it was tinted.

Not only do the architects need to figure out the colors on all the different walls, their samples must also reveal where the various paint colors started and stopped.

"This is kind of a fun process," Stanaway said. "It's part science, part archeology and part detective work."

Stanaway said the painting - in colors still being determined - will be complete by mid 2005, in time for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

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