What Color Should an Old House Be?

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 13, 2015.

The Ladd-Gilman House, c. 1860
In 1876, Charles Bell described for the Ladies Centennial Levee the appearance of the town of Exeter in 1776. “The character of the buildings was generally inferior. To be sure the best of them were spacious, handsome and constructed from the choicest materials, as a few surviving specimens still attest; but probably the major part of them must have been comparatively small and poor. Unpainted houses were the rule then; they are the exceptions now.” When purchasing an old house – or attempting to make a new house blend in to an old neighborhood – the question of paint color is often raised. Our collective vision of New England’s old neighborhoods yields street after street of tidy houses painted in ‘New England Up-Tight White,’ but is this what the town actually looked like back in colonial days? Probably not, but it most likely looked like that one hundred years later.

It is possible to do a paint analysis to determine the original color. This can be time consuming and expensive. Not to mention that, as Charles Bell pointed out, it was uncommon for most colonial buildings to be painted. Even by the early 1800s, unpainted buildings seem to have been the rule in town. Elizabeth Dow Leonard mentions, in her reminiscence of childhood in Exeter during this time period, the Second Parish Church – which one might think was a rather prominent building – was, “guiltless of trees or any other ornamentation, two stories in height and unpainted.” Her own family house, described by her as “the old mansion,” was painted white. Other buildings in town, if the color is mentioned at all, are usually described as red. Dr. William Perry mentions several houses in his memoir of the 1830s: “the house was old and much faded as I recollect it, and painted originally red,” “on the next lot was an old two-storied house, originally painted red, but much faded.” A few others where white, but red or unpainted seems to be the most common colors mentioned for houses in town.

The Exeter Historic District Commission offers some advice on appropriate colors for old houses. These can be found on their website. The colors correspond with age of the house – old houses have fewer options: red, white, various shades of yellow. James Garvin, long the state architectural historian, gives us some insight into these choices in his A Building History of Northern New England, “When painted, houses were often covered with inexpensive yellow and red paints made by mixing dry, pulverized earth colors with linseed oils. Such buildings sometimes had their exterior trim picked out in white lead paint. Not infrequently, the facades of houses were wholly painted in white lead, but the sides and backs were covered with cheaper red or yellow. In other cases, rare enough in the eighteenth century to excite comment, houses were entirely painted in expensive white lead, either pure or tinted by the addition of colored pigments.” All of these choices were fairly durable over time, but white painted had the unfortunate downside of being toxic to the apprentices and painters who worked with it.

If white paint was expensive and uncommon, why do we associate it with traditional New England? The answer to that takes us back to the centennial Charles Bell participated in and a period of faddish delight that followed known as the ‘colonial revival.’ At the time of the nation’s centennial a wave of nostalgia swept across the country and white became the popular color for anything perceived as colonial. Oddly, there was also a great deal of snobbishness associated with all things British, and it became de rigueur to connect with one’s English roots. One popular urban legend – still promoted by many localities today – was that of the ‘Tory chimney.’

A Tory chimney was one that was painted white with a band of black at the very top. The legend usually suggests that locals who were loyal to the crown would have their chimneys painted in this fashion to alert the invading British and avoid having their house destroyed. There is no evidence for this in practice and if you think about it, alerting the British would also alert all your angry patriot neighbors, so it wouldn’t be a particularly great idea. Garvin is unconvinced on the practice, commenting, “the spurious nature of this legend is clear when we reflect on the inaccuracy of eighteenth-century bombardment and the impossibility of targeting or sparing individual buildings. The result of naval bombardment during the Revolution was usually a conflagration that consumed the entire town, as at Falmouth.” So forget about that old chestnut and accept that black-banded white chimneys are simply pretty.

So, before you pick up all that white paint for your old house, keep in mind that there are a few other options. Garvin would encourage the use of the earthier tones, “earth colors offer a limited palette of rather dull but pleasant hues. Mixed with a white metallic pigment, these same colors produce a wide range of hues that are highly appropriate for older houses.” Exeter’s Heritage Commission will be hosting a program on historic house painting this spring at the Exeter Historical Society to provide more guidance – notice of the event will be forthcoming.

Image: The Ladd-Gilman house in Exeter, now the home of the American Independence Museum, seen in a stereo view taken by William Hobbs about 1860. Although it is difficult to determine the color of the house, it is clearly not white. White paint was expensive and even a building as important as this – the state treasury during the Revolution – was often painted in earth tones or not painted at all.


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