Give an old home a colorful new history

It's time to paint your circa 1860 house again, and you're beginning to think about colors. Should you stick with the same old white house with black shutters, maybe jazz up the shutter color, or try to find out what shade the house was painted when it was built?

Historically accurate does not have to mean dull, yet old homes sometimes seem destined to endure coat after coat of boring gray or white paint. Nowadays, homeowners have numerous options. They can choose vibrant paint colors that are faithful to both the time period of their house and to their taste.

Some people think that in order to discover the true colors of an old house, all that's necessary is to scrape through the layers of paint. But getting to the bottom doesn't necessarily mean learning the truth.

Paint is altered by exposure to the sun and suffers chemical reactions through the years, experts say. For example, linseed oil, a component that might be found in paint on old houses, tends to yellow with time, especially in areas that are not exposed to light.

"The original color is no longer there for the untrained eye," explains James Lee of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). People who depend on scraping "are either matching to a muted or faded color."

So, how do you discover the original color of your house? There are several options. One is to have your paint analyzed by a professional. This involves examining samples under a microscope. It's a procedure that can cost from $2,000 to $5,000 and may take four to six days. And, once you see the original color, there are no guarantees that you're going to like it.

Another way to find a historically accurate color is to look through magazines such as "Victorian Homes" and through library books about period architecture.

But some people don't have the time or patience to do their own research, says Robert Schweitzer, professor of architectural history and historic preservation at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. In those cases, a professional color consultant can be helpful.

Like other consultants, Dr. Schweitzer has a large collection of brochures and books from various time periods that show buildings in color, old catalogs, and a myriad of other paint documents. He uses them to determine what colors are right for a house.

"I make a historic palette of colors that are available at your local store and that would match what people have used in different time periods," he explains. A consultant may charge $400 to $600 for advice, but considering that a complete paint job can cost several thousand, Schweitzer believes it's a good investment.

Several paint companies now have historical color palettes, yet many of them do not provide enough information about their colors for those who want to be historically accurate. "Often they won't narrow it down to historical period," says Mary McMurray of Arts Color and Painting in Portland, Ore.,which specializes in architectural color consulting.

That's why California Paints, in partnership with SPNEA, has developed a collection of historical colors accompanied by a chart classifying them by architectural period.

Bestsellers include Yarmouth Oyster, Melville Green, Newbury Moss, and Codman Claret.

If a homeowner is overwhelmed by the choices, SPNEA's Mr. Lee recommends walking around the neighborhood and looking at what other homeowners have done.

But just because every house on the block is painted white, your home doesn't have to be white, too. "If you don't like brown, and everyone is telling you your house should be painted brown, there are other options. Don't feel limited to one particular hue," Ms. McMurray advises.

Whether you decide to choose your colors yourself, or hire a professional, Schweitzer recommends patience and common sense. "Some people say, 'Let's pick a color this week and get done with it.' Why rush through a decision like that? You need to do some testing, look at the options."

Andy Valeriani of California Paints agrees. He believes that hasty customers often make the most mistakes - for example, basing their decisions on a paint chip. "Customers think it looks great in the store, and when they get their house done, it doesn't. Test patches on your house."

Schweitzer recalls an unhappy homeowner who depended too heavily on a paint chip: "This woman picked out a gray for her Victorian house. She went away on vacation while the house was being painted. When she came back, the house looked lavender. If you looked at that paint in the living room it was gray. Outside it was gray. On a large surface it was lavender."

Because older homes may have been part of a number of periods of history, they don't necessarily have to be painted their original color. If you own a Greek Revival house and don't like the typical color schemes from that era, you can always paint it the way it might have appeared in 1880.

In fact, Schweitzer thinks that most people are not bold enough; they're afraid to step out of the monotonous: "They use one or two colors. In Victorian times, [painters] might have used seven or nine."

However, there is one truth that applies to a house, whether it is Victorian or Colonial: Some things are not meant to be. There is a fine line between the bold and the grotesque. "If you get 20 gallons of bright pink, it won't look good. Bad taste is just bad taste," McMurray says flatly.

The other great mistake people make, Schweitzer adds, is trying to transform their house to something it never was in the first place. Painting a Victorian mansion in the colors of an old-fashioned Southern plantation will only make it look awkward. Colors should appear comfortable with the house, blending into a pleasant, balanced whole.

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