A Refined Palette
Andrea Gilmore, our historic paint specialist, finds a subtle Victorian paint scheme for the Silva house.
The Billerica house project, which was damaged by a fire before the TOH crew renovated it in 1999.
Not long after the blueprints for the Silvas' new house were dry, we turned to our friend Andrea Gilmore, a building conservation specialist with a lively interest in historic paint colors. Ever since we met her in 1993 at a remarkable Stick-style Victorian in Wellesley, Massachusetts—whose monochromatic skin she was restoring to its original eight-color glory—we've counted on her advice. The exterior paint schemes in Belmont, Milton, and Watertown were all her work.
Her first step was to consult with architect Chris Dallmus, looking at the building's elevations and details and settling on a style: what he called "village Victorian" and they both agreed was somewhere in the Greek Revival-transitioning to-Italianate Victorian period, around the middle of the 19th century.
She then turned to her black binder, full of paint schemes she has discovered on historic buildings over
the years, as well as schemes she has put together for clients. "Looking at my mid-19th century examples,"
she says, "drove home a guiding principle about colors from that period. This was the first time American architecture was displaying a profusion of exterior detail. The paint technology was keeping up so as to celebrate that detail; every element of the house was allowed to 'talk.' There were not a lot of light colors, and not too many overly bright ones either."
When people in colonial days wanted to impress, they put up bright, intense colors, which also happened to be the most expensive paints. The Victorians took their colors to a more refined esthetic, says Gilmore, getting away from primary and secondary colors and into tertiary ones (mixing, for example, a green and an ochre to give an olive) and experimenting with darker values. And their colors tended to be all of a comparable value, she says, which explains the "somber" or "gloomy" paint schemes that some people ascribe to Victorians.
But gloominess is in the eye of the beholder. The paint scheme the Silvas chose uses an olive-gray for both the clapboards and the trim, with the trim color being just one shade lighter. The sash is a mustardy yellow, taken from an 1890s paint scheme Andrea found on a landmark building in Cambridge's Harvard Square. With black shutters on the front gable still to come, the house is already looking quietly striking. An aesthetically refined Victorian passerby would surely approve.