Architecture, in living color –
As I travel around the state, I am constantly amazed, by the layers of architecture and development present in our cities and towns. In the space of three blocks you can often discover fine examples of Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Craftsman and on and on. Each style has its own unique characteristics, and frequently have artistic touches created by the craftsman that constructed it as a way of leaving their mark. However, these hallmarks and character defining features are often difficult to recognize because, often, they are slathered in snow white paint with black or “Charleston Green” shutters (more on that later). Time and again we see our community’s unique character and heritage obscured as street after street of sugar cubes blur into the next because we have stereotyped that scheme as “classic” or worse “historic.”
Why, we ask, is this the go to scheme for old houses in the south? I would argue a good portion of our allegiance to the scheme comes from popular culture. Southern homes are supposed to look like that, right? But remember that while the quintessential southern home was white with black shutters, Tara, the archetypal plantation, only ever existed on MGM’s backlot. Frequently, I hear from people that their home or historic site was white with black shutters in all the early photos, so that’s what they copied. The only issue is that all early photos are black and white photos, meaning there are only so many options.
So, if not white and black, what should we think of when we consider color on our historic building? First, we should look at the nature of historic finish materials. This is a huge topic and I am not a chemist, but many excellent books have been written on the subject. Roger Moss’s “Paint in America” is a great one to start with if you’re interested. Before the days of fan decks and local paint stores, painting your house was an expensive and labor-intensive task. Lime washes (lime, water and pigment) were mixed by hand and applied, but these finishes weathered away quickly and are often lost to the record today. Paint on the other hand typically involved linseed oil, lead and/or pigment, but these required them to be mixed or sometimes ground by hand, making them costlier but longer lasting. Both products used natural materials in their creation. Remember modern synthetics and the bright titanium white we get in our can at Home Depot were not available until the late 19th and early twentieth century. These natural products had their own unique color which heavily influence the resulting color. For example, Linseed oil is gold in color, lead is grey, even though it does turn whiter as its heated, and natural pigments notoriously change color over time. Iron oxide for example continues to rust over time, changing the color of the paint. This means that many early 19th century or Federal era houses were natural colors like yellows (made with ochre), reds (made with Iron Oxide), creams (made with lime), and greys (made with lead). Federal houses often have a body color, trim color and frequently chrome green shutters. Chrome green (a grass green color) was made with copper oxide, which made it very expensive (it was a status symbol) and prone to basically tarnish and turn black over time. Don’t burn me at the stake as a heretic, but this color, in its deteriorated state, is the basis for what paint companies have ingeniously marketed as “Charleston Green.”
Second, what were the original builders using as their inspiration for their design? In the Greek Revival period it was popular to construct buildings to look like a Greek temple, often going to the trouble to score the exterior stucco on masonry buildings to look like stone blocks. These blocks were then painted to look like stone. An excellent example of this is the Aiken Rhett house in Charleston which is meant to look like Bath Limestone, which had a golden honey tone. Stone colors were popular even on frame buildings, be it limestone, a host of sandstones, and granites, but even that period had exceptions. For example, the TRR Cobb house in Athens, Georgia has been restored to its original pink color scheme.
Third, people were influenced by the designers and tastemakers of the day, much as we are in 2019. Consider the profusion of white and grey interiors popularized by Architectural Digest and HGTV. In the postbellum world, designers like Alexander Jackson Davis promoted softer tones like fawn and straw, which were found on many Italianate homes, while Gothic houses frequently utilized darker earth tones. In these styles, individual architectural elements were starting to be celebrated by picking them out in an accent color. This practice grew more prevalent in the Queen Anne style, with entire floors and types of siding materials being highlighted individually. Contrary to our stereotype, these were not done like a “painted lady” by adding twenty something colors to everything that will hold still, but rather in a purposeful way that highlights the building’s design and construction.
All this is to say, when you look at a historic building, in South Carolina or elsewhere, look past the white paint to see what it could be. Don’t stop at the stereotype, history is rarely boring, and our architectural heritage deserves to be celebrated fully, as an expression of our individuality, and of those that came before us. If your home, office, church or historic site is hiding behind the white, consider exploring its potentially colorful history.
Roots and Recall is honored to continue receiving excellent Feature Articles for posting on subjects related to S.C. history. Greenville, S.C. preservationist, Mr. Kyle Campbell of Preservation South, is a regular contributor of data and images to Roots and Recall. He has researched, compiled and written this article on historic paint colors for your enjoyment. For additional information on his statewide work visit: www.preservationsouth.com
Interested in becoming a contributing author, contact R&R at email@example.com