This Old House TV: Milton house project
When I arrived at This Old House in Milton, I found a wonderful document: a 272-year-old house that preserved a wealth of information about its historic paint colors. Although the north and east sides of the house had been altered extensively—obscuring the record somewhat—the south (front) and west elevations retained their original clapboards and trim, covered with their full paint layering sequences. On the west side of the house, the original wall had been covered over by an enclosed porch, leaving the paint was particularly well preserved.

I removed paint samples from the south and west sides of the house with a scalpel and viewed them in cross-section with a stereo microscope, allowing me to establish the number of paint schemes on the house and to expose individual layers of paint for color matching. The cross sections revealed that the house had been painted approximately 20 times. Averaging it out, that's a new paint job every dozen years—not a bad maintenance regime!

The earliest colors? Dark brown clapboards and red trim. The original paints applied in a thin-bodied coating more like an opaque stain than paint. The colors that followed were a taupe scheme and two yellow paint schemes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By the mid-19th century, the house was being down up in white with green trim. The white schemes coincide with the Greek Revival influence in American architecture at that time, when building were painted in imitation of the (supposed) white marble of ancient temples. Also during this time frame, it appears that shutters were added to the house.

In the second half of the 19th century, the house was painted in the dark, bold colors of the Victorian era. The three dark gray, nearly black paint schemes are of particular interest because the clapboards, trim, window sash and shutters were painted one color—what a radical departure after all that white. After these dark gray coats, the house was painted white with dark green or black shutters throughout the 20th century. A c. 1890 photograph of the house shows the house being painted, the crew at work on a dramatic change, most likely from dark gray to white.

While the colors chosen for the exterior of the Milton house do not represent a scheme that actually existed, they are a combination of colors that were found on the house. The clapboard color is taken from the yellow of the house's third painting; the cream trim was toned to match the clapboards; the window sash's red recalls the house's original paint job; and the shutter color echoes the dark green of past shutters. The overall effect gives an air of the late 18th century, accentuating the house's architectural detail and making it a prominent feature on the property's beautiful landscape.

Andrea Gilmore, a paint expert at Building Conservation Associates in Dedham, Massachusetts, has helped This Old House chose historically accurate palettes for the Milton and Watertown projects.
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