I am preparing to paint the Great North Wall of the Cross House, the facade to the left. The main facade, to the right, was repainted in 2014. The colors I am using are the original 1894 colors, based on computer-matched samples discovered in 2014. The walls were a gold olive. The trim was a green olive. And the window sashes were a black olive. The above image, when the house was brand new, proved invaluable in determining what was Light and what was Dark. If you click on this image, it will enlarge. Image courtesy ESU Special Collections and Archives.
In this image, you can see the contrast between how the house was painted originally, and how it was later painted. The original color application is seen on the left, and to the right is a “painted lady” application done ten years ago. The latter look became popular in the 1960s when hippies started buying “gloomy old Victorians” and painting them in vivid colors, the more colors the better. The “painted lady” effect (where every detail is picked out in contrasting colors) has, pretty much, become the default approach to old houses, even though the approach is historically inaccurate. Houses in the late 19th- and early 20-century were normally painted in a 4-color scheme: sash color, wall color, trim color, and porch ceiling color.
A “painted lady”. This house would have looked nothing like this originally.
In this image of the Cross House (a close-up of the 1895 image, above), you can see how the huge and dramatic curved cornice of the Cross House, a signature feature, was painted a solid color.
This is the house when I purchased it in March 2014. The “painted lady” aesthetic is evident.
And the house last year. The application of colors (light, dark) were guided by the 1895 image. The result almost looks like a different house than the one I purchased.
This week, I will be painting the “eye”, as seen in the upper gable. The big question: what should the colors be?
In 1895, it appears that the “eye” was painted the same color as the wall color. This surprised me. However, this actually makes sense as…
…the decorative detailing in other areas were also, originally, painted the light wall color, rather then the darker trim color.
As also seen here.
Thus, I let the 1895 image inform my color decisions. And even though the highly decorative details are not “picked out” they are nonetheless highly visible.
You can appreciate how the decorative details are picked out in the lighter wall color.
Just for fun, this image shows a settee to the right, and an overturned rocker to the left. This image also reveals what a fraud I am. A fraud! For, see how the columns are the lighter wall color?
I nonetheless painted them the darker trim color. I know, SHOCKING! A SCANDAL! I should be arrested for violating historic accuracy! I know! I know! But…although I did initially paint the columns the lighter wall color, and with the darker trim color for their bases and capitals, this looked, in the end…weak. So I made an executive decision to go all dark. I have not regretted this.
It is rare that a historic home is repainted in its original colors.
Most historic home owners go for a “painted lady” effect. And/or most owners select colors which they like.
In a million years I would not have selected the colors I used in the end. Rather, the colors selected me, for I was highly focused on a single burning question: WHAT were the original colors???????? Because the house had been stripped of 99.9% of the old paint by the previous owner, I initially had zero confidence that I could ascertain the original colors. But, this proved an incorrect assumption, as bits were discovered which could be computer matched.
So, even though in a million years I would not have selected the colors I eventually used, I am thrilled with the results. The colors superbly complement the limestone foundation, the oak entry doors, and stained-glass windows. I doubt, very much, that any alternative colors I selected would have proved so successful.
Recently, a friend called me. He owns an incredible historic house, and he and his wife are planning to repaint the exterior. A gargantuan project.
“What colors would you recommend,” he asked?
As we talked, he told me what colors he liked, and what colors his wife liked.
I responded that he and his wife might well end up getting divorced over this issue, as their color preferences were so different!
Then I asked: “What were the original colors?”
My friend had no idea. And it had never occurred to him to find out.
I responded again: “It is highly unlikely that the original colors are not, somewhere, encoded within the exterior. And, if you discover the original colors, and even if you are not excited with the discovery/colors, you will nonetheless be, based on my experience, thrilled with the results.”
My friend responded…skeptically.
While I was eager to default to The Original Colors, I support historic home owners who decide to paint their fabulous old house in colors which make them happy.
Happy matters. Oh baby, happy sooooo matters.
I wrote this post so that readers would learn of what guided me. But what worked for me might not work for others.
I also wrote this post as a, well, suggestion. If you own a historic home, and wonder What To Do regarding painting your exterior, perhaps my experience will be helpful.