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By Steve Jordan

As the flamboyant architectural styles and textures of the late Victorian period gave way to more austere tastes at the turn of the 20th century, the public's earlier preference for dark colors in kaleidoscopic hues shifted to favor "kinder and gentler" schemes in both muted and bright colors. These colors were expressed on the exteriors of a new wave of houses competing for attention—Colonial Revivals, Arts & Crafts bungalows, Foursquares, Tudor Revivals, and a few combinations in between.

While this varied group of post-Victorian styles and types represents a rich building stock for old-house lovers, painting them in historically sensitive ways is often tricky. Early 20th-century designers and builders often mixed and matched architectural vocabularies, and paint manufacturers could produce pretty much any tint or hue desired, so you can't expect a rigid set of rules to guide you through exterior paint choices. Rather, it's best to become familiar with the period color palettes, then adjust their loosey-goosey logic to your preferences, your neighborhood, and your part of the world. Looking at the kinds of colors and schemes recommended in the past, and adhering to a few common-sense principles, will help you on your way.

Although paint and placement are important, it's valuable to consider a few broader issues before pondering exact colors. The early 20th-century paint expert A. Ashmun Kelly, author of The Household Painter (1923), recommended principles that continue to make sense today:

    • Color choices should not be made by personal preference alone.
    • Exterior colors should be chosen according to the style of the house.
    • Location of the house and the surroundings should weigh in on the decision.
    • In suburban settings, colors should harmonize with nearby houses, not duplicate them—cooperate, don't compete.
    • Large houses painted in medium to dark colors recede into the background.
    • Large houses painted in light colors stand apart from the background.
Finally, remember that local and regional preferences frequently trumped the best advice of paint manufacturers and style mavens. Communities in the South and on each coast often stubbornly maintained a nearly uniform "white" front. Though ready-mixed paints were introduced around the time of the Civil War, many old-time painters continued to concoct their own paints well past 1900. These colors undoubtedly varied from the standard of premixed colors and were also more adaptable to the owner's preference.

Arts & Crafts Bungalow (1900 to 1935)
The popular bungalow adapted to both expensive—think Greene and Greene—and modest-say, Sears or Aladdin ready-cut-budgets to spread across the country, filling entire subdivisions with charming, practical homes. Known for their low roofs with generous overhangs, deep porches, and honest architectural elements, in their purest forms bungalows were intended to be built with natural, site-specific materials and to blend into the environment. Thus, it was no accident that the palette advocated for bungalows was often earth tones, woody stains, and other subdued, complex shades. Yellow trim on an oak brown shingled body was typical.

Double-body schemes were equally common, such as the one depicted in the 1923 Morgan Woodwork Catalog Building with Assurance: a "Western" bungalow design with dark green shingles on the second floor and brown horizontal siding at the first floor, all trimmed in brown to evoke America's vision of a pine wooded West. The "natural look" was by no means law, however. To prevent regionalization that might limit sales, Morgan also showed similarly styled houses with pale yellow stucco and white trim—colors more suitable to the bright skies and white beaches of Florida or Southern California.

Foursquare (1895 to 1940)
Coinciding with the popularity of the bungalow was its utilitarian alter-ego, the Foursquare—a two-storey, hipped roof house now so named for its boxy proportions. Recognized at the time as "the most house for the least money," Foursquares carried few exterior architectural embellishments except for siding details and front porch elements-columns, piers, balusters—that might be classically derived, bungalowlike, or so stark they lack any stylistic influence. Early versions often expressed a Victorian aesthetic with a subtle use of dark colors and contrast, particularly on a solid-body Foursquare—for instance, a reddish-yellow body with brown trim and dark green sash. An even more striking combination recommended in 1915 was a dark brown body, white trim, and black sash. Though Foursquares built after the 1920s frequently lacked the earlier attention to harmony and subtlety of details, double-body cladding treatments still appeared. A common scheme incorporated dark green stained shingles at the second storey with tan or white horizontal siding at the first storey and white or tan trim.

Colonial Revival (1880-on)
Since the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the popularity of the Colonial Revival movement—or many a pastiche of Colonial Revival elements—has continued unabated. Whether it's a diminutive Georgian manse with dormers, dentiled bed mouldings, and columned porticos or gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonials, these homes evoked the romance of days-gone-by, providing a traditional contrast to the earthy, progressive bungalow. Generally, Colonial Revivals were painted brighter and bolder than bungalows. Nearly every period paint brochure or pattern book at the turn of the 20th century began with recommendations for a body of "Colonial yellow" with white trim and dark green shutters. White was another popular body color with shutters and sash painted in a darker contrasting color to accentuate the white. In the 1920s and '30s, the Colonial Revival enjoyed an added burst of popularity, with many houses built in brick and, invariably, white or yellow trim. All-wood Colonial Revivals also lightened and whitened so that, by World War II and into the 1950s, a white body was prescriptive, highlighted by bright contrasting shutters or trim.

Tudor (1905 to 1940)
From the beginning of the century until World War II, the Tudor Revival-style house offered a romantic, vaguely medieval alternative to the symmetrical and clearly classical Colonial Revival. Tudor homes were commonly built side-by-side with other styles, often filling neighborhoods, subdivisions, or even entire suburbs, such as Shaker Heights, Ohio. Known for their steeply pitched roofs, half-timbering, and mix of unpainted stucco, brick, or stone, Tudors rarely displayed the diversity of colors seen on other styles. Dark brown (almost black) was the most popular trim color contrasting with lighter stucco that frequently sparkled with embedded mica or other minerals that created a subtle flair. Various browns were also favorite trim colors—and, yes, Tudor trim was occasionally painted white.

Latex or Oil?

Those of us interested in paint and old houses thought the latex-versus-oil debate would be over by now-after all, we've been told by manufacturers for 20 years that "oil-based paint will be off the market in the next five years." Nonetheless, oil-based paints are still available, so to choose the right paint for your older home, it helps to understand the available products and their pros and cons.

Modern 100 percent acrylic latex paint out-performs oil-based house paint in color retention, gloss retention, film life, and vapor permeability. However, when switching from an oil-based system to an acrylic system, all experts agree you should begin with an oil based primer.

Oil-based house paint is still a viable option despite the formula alterations required to conform to the EPA's volatile organic compound rules. Oil-based paint adheres to dirty, chalky surfaces better than water-based paints. Oil-based paint is also extremely durable when used in areas of hard wear or abuse, for example on porch columns, porch railings, porch floors, and doors. When used on windows and doors, oil-based paint does not create the "blocking" (sticking) problems associated with water-borne paints. Here are a few rules of thumb to help you decide which paint is best for your special old house.
    • If your house has a minor accumulation of old paint (say, five coats or less) or it is stripped to bare wood, consider switching from oil-based paint to a 100 percent acrylic latex top coat. (After all, we won't have oil paints in five years.)
    • If you choose medium-to-dark colors for your house, 100 percent acrylic latex will resist fading and retain the original color far longer than oil-based paints.
    • Use100 percent acrylic latex paint on new materials, additions, restorations, or repairs.
    • When painting windows, doors, or cabinets, always use a top-quality paint that has excellent "blocking" resistance to prevent sticking.
    • If your house has always been painted in oil, if the paint film is in reasonably good condition, and if the color is white or pale; continue using oil-based paint.
    • If your house has thick coats of brittle oil-based paint, it is safer to repaint with oil-based paint. The application of modern flexible acrylic paints over thick layers of brittle oil based paints can create a paint peeling problem by pulling the old, brittle, oil-based paint away from the substrate.
Whatever paint you use, always follow sound painting principles and remember: Preparation is the first step to any quality paint job.

Common Color Combinations
Ideas for Typical Schemes Recommended by Period Texts

Body *up grey dk. green dk. green dk. brown
*down red brick lt. olive straw straw
Trim grey white white straw
SHUTTERS grey willow green green green
SASH black green green white

Body copper brown drab, up; amber br., down amber br., up; brick, down
TRIM brick red white or off-white tan
ROOF red ivy green russet

Body tan Colonial yellow (ochre & chrome yellow)
TRIM rich buff white

Body stone color cream
TRIM brown green or maroon
SASH brown/black green or maroon
SHUTTERS copper verde green or maroon

* For double-body schemes


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