Historically Accurate, or Just Ugly?

Q: I'm always amazed that such care is taken to return old homes to their original colors, as determined by painstaking investigation, with apparently no consideration that the original owner might have been a tasteless idiot. Have you ever discovered original colors that were so hideous that you didn't use them even though they were "historically correct"?

—Chuck, Black Mountain, NC

A: No, but close. In 1991, at our Kirkside project in Wayland, Massachusetts, we were firsthand witnesses to a collision between modern taste and historical accuracy. After exactly the kind of investigation you describe, we found that the outside of the 1815 house, which had been painted white for many years, had originally been ochre with green shutters. Not everyone wanted us to put those colors back on the house, including the members of the Wayland Historical Commission. But after a lot of discussion, history won out and the commission okayed the original hues. Many people loved them, but surely there are some folks still grumbling every time they pass by. There's just no pleasing everyone when it comes to house colors.

Here in New England, white was the rage during the Greek Revival period in the early to middle 1800s. But before and after that, colors were widely used. We tend to think of them as being muted, but that's partly because what we see has been dulled by time. Some of the original colors were actually quite vivid. That goes for interiors, too. Remember that colonial rooms generally had small windows and were lit by candles, not 60-watt bulbs. Paints that would seem garish now would have been much easier to tolerate under the less intense lighting conditions of the day.

To get more tips on selecting paint colors for your home, see Choosing Exterior Colors
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