Classic Architectural Paint Colors


John Crosby Freeman, The Color Doctor

Ever since Europeans first planted homes on the eastern seaboard of the northern hemisphere, Americans have struggled to make them safe, snug, warm, and beautiful. Home improvement—it’s in our DNA. Like us today, many risked personal fortunes moving up to a bigger new house or making do with additions and decorations to an old one. The biggest bargain in home improvement then and still is exterior paint and its colors, visual affects that can accomplish more for less than any other upgrade. Mom taught us not to judge books by their covers; but that’s how most Americans judge buildings, isn’t it?

Washington & Jefferson

Consider two of the most famous house-proud builders of Early American homes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—true Americans, men on the make.

Washington, born into a lower echelon of Virginia’s planter class, is encamped at Valley Forge, his troops freezing and starving while the enemy is down the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia enjoying wine, women, and song of the British Empire’s second largest city. House-proud ambitions for his Mount Vernon mansion on the Potomac keep him going. It fills his correspondence back home. He stretches his disposable income buying improvements “in the latest [British] fashion.”

Jefferson, an outsider lad from the Piedmont attending William & Mary, makes a run at marrying up into the top echelon of the planter class and is refused. He makes do with radical politics he learned from his Scots tutor, comes up trumps, and pours his limited income into his forward-thinking Monticello mansion on a mountain.

Paint was there.

Taxing paint was one of the sparks that ignited the Revolution. Everyone knows the Revenue Act of 1767, better known as the Townshend Act, taxed tea; but it also imposed duties on paper, glass, lead, and paint. Obvious luxuries, but essential to the upward mobility of Early American home improvements that distinguished a hovel from a home.

Paint vs. Whitewash

There’s an old adage about the status of paint that survives in The South—“Too poor to paint; too proud to whitewash.” Minor buildings located off the main drag of Colonial Williamsburg got a first coat of an iron oxide color, about which more in a moment, followed by whitewash, a chalk white in a weak glue binder that required frequent recoating. Both were inexpensive, locally made, and not taxed.

Paint Color as Imitation

The grand tradition of America’s classic architectural paint colors is imitating traditional building materials ofstone, brick, tile, stucco, and metals. Paint without color is only a protective coating signifying nothing.

Washington and Jefferson knew what architectural paint colors could do to mask compromises imposed by economic necessity. The outer walls of Mount Vernon are rectangles of wood boards, bevel-edged and coated with sanded white paint to imitate blocks of marble. What appear to be Monticello’s monolithic portico columns are stacks of less expensive stone drums coated with a sanded stone color. Although adding sandto paint will diminish its spread rate by 25% or more, the hardnessof silica adds superior durability. Tempted? Be advised it’s very difficult to remove sanded paint.

The Stone-Tolan House

Exterior paint colors imitating traditional building materials were not limited to wealthy sophisticates near the Early American centers of power. Consider the Stone-Tolan House on the frontier of Western New York. Monroe County’s oldest surviving architecture, it was built in 1792 as a tavern exploiting traffic from the bread basket of Early America to Rochester’s flour mills at Falls of the Genesee. Stuart Bolger, who guided the creation of Genesee Country Village & Museum, directed the restoration of Stone-Tolan early in his career. His board was shocked when told it wasn’t painted white. They balked at the original brick red body and stone gray trim. Brick red was the most popular exterior red house color of the 19thcentury, also used to upgrade the look of soft, low-fired brick walls. In 1895, when Sherwin-Williams selected a color for its paint to Cover the Earth, it chose Brick Red.

Common Colors

With the exception of expensive rich green chemical colorants, all classic architectural paint colorants are inexpensive yellow, red, and brown iron oxides that still exist in the colorant dispensing machines of today’s paint stores. The old generic name for colors made with them was common colors. Today, we call them earth colors.

Color Talk

Today’s color talk has strayed from classic terminology. White and black are not colors, because white reflects all colors of light and black absorbs all colors. Tints of black, i.e., The Gray Scale, are the only true neutrals. All pale tints are off-whites. Color and hue are not the same. There are few hues andcountless colors.Analogous colors is a pseudo-scientificColor Wheel substitute for related colors—colors that share the same hues. If they don’t, they are contrasting colors.

Master Painter Color Formulas

Today’s paint colors are mixed in paint stores like recipes from a cookbook usinga few tint bases and specified quantities of colorants for each color. Prior to the late 20th century, color formulasonly listed colorants required. Most colors were mixed and adjusted on site. For example, an 1881 Master Painter guidebook published in Cincinnati assigned a letter to each colorant, mostly iron oxides. Samples of 116 chromo-lithographed colors listed the letters of colorants required in descending order of quantity. White was often listed first, because it converts colors into tints and adds opacity to lighter colors. Black, the Pandora’s Box of colorants, was listed only twice, at the end.

Color Options

Discovery of all 116 colors in the selectors of your local Sherwin-Williams yielded two rewards. Each was located on a strip with its tints and shades, yielding up to six more Master Painter Colors, therebygreatly expanding options for each document color. My chief complaint about historic color cards of the late 20th century, despite my involvement with several of them, is lack of options.All are better than nothing; yet even the best create a false impression that the showcased colors are imperatives without options. Then as now, Master Painters require options to adjustthe tints, shades, and tones of colors to conditions of the job site. 

Guiding Lights

Discovery also enabled me to identify their Light Reflectance Values (LRV). I divided them into the trinity of Body/Trim/Accent. This revealed half of them as body colors with an LRV of 20% to 40%, a quarter as darker trim colors with an LRV of 10% to 20%, and a quarter as dark accent colors with an LRV of less than 10%. While alighter tint of a body color for trim is always an acceptable option, 10% to 20% LRV will help you select a darker trim color.

What is trim?

If you don’t know what trim is, other than “It’s everything else other than the body,” you are blameless. You are a victim of post-WWII art education creative self-expression that didn’t teach youhow to look at traditional architecture. Here is a brief Cliff Notes trim tutorial.

  • Exterior architecture is organized like a good story. It has a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Its trim has a syntax that organizes surfaces with tangible punctuation. For example, accents are explanation points.
  • Trim is either vertical or horizontal. Most windows and their shutters or blinds are vertical. All doors are vertical. Edges of corners are defined vertically. Cornices, foundations, colonnades, balustrades, and verandahs are horizontal.
  • There is no rule that says all trim must be painted the same color. For example, shutters and doors don’t need to be the same accent color.

Shutters or Blinds & Doors

With apology to Pete Seeger, I ask, “Where have all the colors gone?” Industrialized speculative housing, in league with limited colors of a triumphant vinyl siding industry, has bruised today’s landscape of former cornfields with “homa-tomas” and soaked them with comfort colors of beige and off-whites. Spared from this onslaught isour heritage of accent colors for shutters or blinds and doors we inherited from our Early American ancestors.

I’ve pondered today’s universal adoption of dark green for shutters or blinds, even when isolated like earmuffs on the windows of blazing white houses. My best guess, based on the imitation theory of architectural colors, is that dark green imitates the natural color of European metal defensive shutters of copper or bronze either new or weathered.


Charleston Shutter Green

The first and best Historic Charleston Foundation color card of 1987 accurately named it “Charlestonian Black Green.” Anyone can make Charleston Shutter Green today by adding a quart of off-the-shelf green to three quarts of black; but how did the color come into being? During a brief period when it was prosperous,Charleston was America’s most au courant Late Georgian city. The original green of fashionable Charleston’s shutters or blinds, I’m guessing again, was a rich emerald green that imitated the patina of weathered copper. Its colorant was the copper acetate ofverdigris, a blue-green that would turn towards black in the atmosphere, especially with neglect during Charleston’s economic decline, hence Charleston Shutter Green.

Natchez Shutter Green

This suggests an optional source forrich greensdocumented on shutters or blinds elsewhere in Early America, such as Andrew Jackson’s “Hermitage” and at Historic Natchez, where a shutter only painted twice was found protected from exposure in a privy. Painted in the early 19th century with the rich emerald greens of French Crown Green, they were more permanent than copper green made with verdigris, but also more expensive. Natchez Shutter Green exactly matched the “Evergreen” standard color of Sherwin-Williams floor enamel, accessible today in SWP 6447 Evergreens.

Dark greens for shutters or blinds named bronze green, moss green, or olive green became increasingly fashionable as the 19th century waltzed towards a romantic interlude with antique weathered architectural colors. Inexpensive and durable, they were made with yellow oxide made dark and greenish with the blue bias of carbon black.

I should also mention the optional adoption of a cream color for first-floor shutters of fashionable houses that didn’t want a dark and discordant shutter color to be visible in formal rooms when closed, as they often were, to provide privacy and resist radiant heat loss in the evening or solar heat gain during the day.


Painting doors and shutters or blinds the same color is common practice today; yet it was never required. There is a huge functional and symbolic difference between them. Windows are functional openings for light and air. Doors are symbolically energized portals to the home located between Nature’s Chaos outside and Civilized Order inside.

Doors got painted a copper or bronze color, of course, along with the rich wood colors of mahogany or walnut; but in the Connecticut River Valley there was a unique Colonial tradition of painting entrance doors a rich dark blue, according an article by Kevin Sweeney about “The Mansion People” in the Winterthur Portfolio for Winter, 1984.

Membership in this Colonial intermarried directorate of seven families, also called The River Gods, could be identified at a distance by over-scaled entrance doors, sometimes added to existing houses, with muscular wood surrounds apparently made of stone,capped by an exuberant scrolled split pediment over a double door painted blue. The blue of these doors, long gone, was a power play of conspicuous consumption made with the notoriously fugitive and expensive imported chemical colorant of Prussian Blue. One of seven doors that survives in situis the 1767 Simeon Belden House in Wethersfield, Connecticut. It’s the ancestral home of Comstock, Ferre—America’s oldest seed company since a Belden descendant started the Wethersfield Seed Garden in 1811. (

A rich dark blue can be accessed today from Fine Paints of Europe. The color is Navy Blue, available in a special kit for painting a door featuring their imported Hollandlac Brilliant gloss paint. (800.332.1556 or

Naming Wall Colors

We now come to the sticky matter of traditional body colors and their names. To put this in perspective, consider Names vs. Numbers, published by Sherwin-Williams ca. 1895 to resist mounting pressure to name its numbered colors.Double indexed listings of SWP (“Made to Paint Buildings With”) colors proved what is as true now as it was then. “No two people have exactly the same ideas as to the proper names to be applied to many shades.”

Yet throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, classic architectural colors that mimicked traditional building materials could still be accessed by name. Names vs. Numbers lists the following stone colors. (L=Light, M=Medium, D=Dark or Deep) Stone was L/M/D. It could also be Blue, Brown, Buff, Drab (L/M/D), Gray, Green (L/M/D), Sand, or Yellow (L). Slate was L, also Brown, Drab, or Green (L/D). I invite you to explore and discoveryour local and regional stone body color options.

Colonial Yellow

Only one named exterior body color identified as Colonial survived into the 20th century. Colonial Yellow is an emphatic midtone yellow usually made with inexpensive and durable yellow oxide as an eye-catching, but economic, alternative to expensive white or less expensive gray. Its poster-child is the Craigie-Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

During many years of public presentations about America’s architectural colors, each time I showed a house painted Colonial Yellow to a group of dedicated preservationists their collective gasp sucked oxygen out of the room. Catching their breath, several would tell me Colonial Yellow is an interesting old color, but NIMBY.

What about white?

I admit it. I’ve got attitude about white. It began when I got involved with the Victorian Revival of the 1970s and its campaign for multiple contrasting colors to reveal the ornamental charms of Victorian homes hidden by The Great Whiteout that began early in the 20th century. Upon further reflection, I had to admit that white paint, by obscuring old-fashioned Victorian ornamental details, modernized and thereby preserved these otherwise serviceable dwellings. I was also tempted to accuse Americans of being mindlessly lazy when they kept painting their homes white; but there had to be more to it. I decided that “Too poor to paint [white]. Too proud to whitewash.” held the answer. White house paint was and still is the emblem of American prosperity.

Yet white or the exterior comfort colors of beige and off-whites of today’s homes are so ubiquitous that eyes of most observers and the minds to which they are attached slide past them with nary a flicker of recognition.

Americans make enormous sacrifices for their homes, especially owners of Early American homes. Aren’t we overdue for considering our classic architectural color options? What was old could be new again. Consider the wisdom of that sage of the silver screen Mae West, who said, “It’s better to be looked over than over-looked.”


John Crosby Freeman lives in Norristown across the Schuylkill River from Valley Forge. Consultations for his color design service can be accessed via