Choosing Paint Colors for Your Historic Home

Lynn Richardson

For years, most people believed the only authentic colors for an early American historic home interior were white, off-white, cream, mustard and olive green. House after house was “restored” with this limited palate – in fact, a review of magazines like Colonial Homes and Early American Home from the 1960’s through the late 1980’s seldom show a restored room in any other color.

But over the past few decades, color – even bright color – has slowly been making an appearance in colonial period restoration. And rightly so -- our national forefathers and foremothers would be please to see us finally getting it right. When they were new, many colonial homes were much more colorful places than most people ever suspected.

Color at Mount Vernon

Historians who worked on the restoration of George Washington’s home discovered that far from reflecting a trend toward subdued white-washes and bland accents, the interior walls were painted in rich robin’s egg blues, bright greens, deep crimsons, and intense cobalt. In his own 1780 restoration and redecoration, Washington had the West parlor repainted in deep Prussian Blue, with equally dramatic blue upholstery added to the furnishings.

Bright red window hangings were the preferred choice for dining rooms in stylish homes of the period, and fragments found at Mount Vernon suggest that Washington’s home was no exception. Bedrooms were also awash in color, with heavy toile or vibrantly colored chintz bed hangings, rich window draperies, and floors carpeted in a variety of colors and patterns to complement the wall color and fabrics in the room.

Jefferson and others

Washington was not alone in his use of bright colors in 18th century America. From colorful French wallpapers, to the yellow and green dome room, color is was a part of Thomas Jefferson’s famous home as well.

Many other homes of the period were likewise rich with color. Although pigment, particularly blue, was expensive, colonial homeowners used color as an expression of wealth and status.

When it was too costly to paint entire walls, woodwork, doors and trim would be brightly colored. One room in a 1778 farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania revealed bright turquoise pigment embedded into the original woodwork, ironically concealed under layers of muted golds, creams and whites from successive “restorations.” Another room in the same home showed bright emerald green paint as the original shade once later colors had been stripped away. Clearly the owners of this property used colorful woodwork as a less expensive alternative to covering the walls with pigments, but the effect would have been almost as bright.

Choosing colors for your colonial-period home

If you’re restoring a historic home, or are recreating the colonial feel in new construction, how should you use color?

If you like the look of muted shades and white-washed simplicity, by all means go with the more subtle hues so many of us associate with colonial homes. Less affluent homes of the period often used these shades, as the earth-toned pigments were easily and inexpensively obtained from earth, plants, and seeds. A soft palate can invoke the feeling of simpler, less hectic times, and may be the right choice for your historic property, especially if it’s of modest proportions.

But if you prefer bright colors and rich tones, you can still do an authentic period restoration and incorporate intense color throughout your home.

Visit historic properties

If possible, visit Mount Vernon, the homes of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, or other well-restored colonial properties. Look at the colors used on walls, woodwork and doors. The colors on fabrics such as wall hangings, window coverings and bed draperies can also be helpful, but make allowances for the fact that any original fabrics were probably far more vibrant when they were originally hung. Examine carpets and area rugs as well, as these were also a source of color in early American homes.

Look for evidence in your home

If the walls or woodwork in your historic home were originally painted, there will probably be evidence remaining, even if they have been painted many times over. Try chipping away a small bit of plaster in an inconspicuous area to see of the original color is visible at the edges. Look behind quarter round or other trim for color on woodwork. Check under hinges, latches and doorplates on original doors or windows.

A paste paint striper such as Peel Away can be used to remove paint in layers, revealing colors underneath. If apparently bare wood is exposed, use a magnifying glass and bright work light to look for paint in the pores of the wood. Walls and woodwork were seldom primed in early construction, so pigment seeped into the porous wood.

Check local or regional historical societies

In many areas of the country, extensive work has been done to gather information on colors typical for the interior and exterior of period homes. Depending upon the age and style of your home, they may be able to give you a reliable list of colors common to a home such as yours in that locale.

Decide how authentic you want to be

Once you’ve gathered information about the colors used in your home or similar homes in your area, decide how authentic you want your restoration or recreation to be. While careful restoration can be a good thing, if you simply do not like the original colors, make adjustments to suit your tastes and lifestyle. Remember, bad taste is not limited to modern homeowners – the people who built and decorated your house may have made poor choices in color, too. You aren’t obligated to recreate their mistakes!

About the author:

Lynn Richardson is a veteran of two complete house restorations, and the author of numerous articles on historical renovation, period decorating and life in an antique house. She works as a full time writer to support her antique house addiction.

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