The Colonial Revival Color Palette

Posted by on Aug 14, 2013 in Journal, Paint Analysis

“Wow, those are unusual colors!  What were they thinking?”

I recently finished the paint analysis on a c. 1896 Victorian house in San Marcos and often hear variations of that question. Its original color scheme was beautiful, with a light yellow body, a warm red-brown on the door and window casings, and all the decorative woodwork trimmed in lavender. However, surprise is a common reaction when historic colors are first uncovered, especially when shades like lavender make their reappearance.

This conflict with our modern color sensibilities is often remarkable. A recent example is the 1898 Comal County Courthouse, where my analysis uncovered an original color scheme that also surprised our client. With its vibrant palette of pastel blues, pinks, yellow, and tan, this restored courthouse is a breathtaking anomaly in the neutral color world of today’s public buildings! (District CourtroomCentral Corridor, & Judge’s Office)

What was the inspiration when Americans chose colors for their homes and buildings in the late 19th C.? Like we still do today, they followed the “good taste gurus” of their era. Since they did not have our online resources, they took their color cues from the neighbors, prescriptive literature, and their local paint store. And often the “style du jour” was the Colonial Revival, which came into vogue with the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876.

It was the first official World’s fair held in the United States, and Americans were astonished by the worldwide homage paid to the birthday of our Declaration of Independence. The American Colonial style became our passion and was overwhelmingly popular through the middle of the 20th C. By the end of the 19th C., the closest style competitor to the Colonial Revival influence in American homes was the Arts and Crafts Movement. But what came to be called the Craftsman style was never as popular for public buildings as the Colonial Revival, with its links to the roots of our American democracy.


The Ohio House, constructed for the 1876 Exposition: image obtained from Wikimedia Commons and is freely licensed.

Along with the public’s newfound interest in antiques and reproduction Queen Anne and Federal furniture popularized by the Colonial Revival, pastel paint colors thought to reflect our Colonial heritage gradually became popular as the 19th C. ended. These light color schemes reflected the availability of a broad range of stable, ready-mixed synthetic paints (the subject of my next blog) and provided a visual relief from the increasingly muddied, deep-toned Victorian palette of the 1860’s- 1880’s.

So the Victorian house in San Marcos and the Comal County Courthouse, both built at the end of the 19th C., share elements of the Colonial Revival design movement that became increasingly popular as the 20th C approached. And both buildings’ stylish color schemes are an example of the pervasiveness of popular styles, as well as our fascination with making design choices that show we’re in step with our times.

“What were they thinking?” I always pause and wonder how much they really want to know.