Preservation ABCs: Y is for Yellow Ochre

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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Y is for Yellow Ochre

The Chinese Room painted in Yellow Ochre at Gunston Hall. Click photo for source.

The Chinese Room painted yellow ochre at Gunston Hall. Click photo for source.

Y is for Yellow Ochre because historic preservation studies need to discuss paint colors. While ordinances will not (typically) dictate the proper color of your house, each architectural style has appropriate colors. You can easily notice this when browsing the historical colors section of Benjamin Moore (check out the Colonial Willamsburg palate*), California Paints Historic Colors of America, the National Trust Historic Colors Valspar line, and others. Paint is expressive and indicative of architectural trends, cultural statements and fashion of the time. Browse through the California Paints guide for an overview and comparison between the decades of the 20th century.

As for yellow ochre? Simply put, ochre is a naturally occurring earth pigment (mostly clay with iron oxides) that would be used to color the paint. The boldness of the color can be altered by heating the iron oxides. Ochres (the pigment) are more than yellow; they are red, orange and brown.

Colors of previous centuries are not always what we’d expect (you can thank the USA bicentennial red, white, and blue patriotism for that). Colors exhibited wealth, and were not neutral as we once thought. Blues, purples, greens, yellows all made a social statement, in an impressive way.

Do you choose historically accurate colors, or mix your modern vibe with a historic house? When should colors be historically accurate? Any pet peeves you have?

Thoughts about Home: Part Two

Continued from Part One*

Part Two: The Physical Location – How Do You Make a Place Your Home? 

When you own a house, you have the right to change whatever you’d like. This is assuming you aren’t breaking any zoning ordinances or design review standards, of course. And to quell the rumor: if you have a house listed in the National Register of Historic Places, you are only required to follow state and federal review if you are receiving state or federal permits or money. A listing does not dictate your every move with your house. Still, you should respect the historic integrity of your house and community. But, aside from that, let’s talk about making a place a home in terms of the tangible elements.

How do homeowners begin to make their mark? Paint is the first and easiest answer. Gwynn lives in Northern California and though she rents, she plans to immediately paint when she does own a house. A fresh coat of paint does wonders. Removing wall to wall carpets is an easy (albeit annoying) task that can immediately change the look of your house.

When we own a place, often the best way to go about making a place your home is by living in it for a while and getting to know it, as Jim suggests: “I prefer to buy a place I can live in for several years as is, while I get to know it and form plans for how to make it more mine. In this case, I have been slowly taking up the carpets so I can live on the hardwood floors that lurk beneath, and I remodeled the bathroom, but that’s it over the six years I’ve been here.”

Jane (Vermont) sees her house as an on-going project, too: “I am removing the vinyl siding, replacing the ‘lifetime replacement windows’….insulating as I go. Maybe some day I will get to the kitchen. We’ve done the basics: roof, plumbing, electrical, heating.”

Yet, if you rent, what can you do? Most landlords allow you to paint in reasonable colors. Nothing neon or black (probably not even pink). White is a good option to make everything look fresh and clean. Colors add life to apartments. Some landlords are kind enough to upgrade appliances or door locks. Others landlord will let you do work, as long as they do not have to pay for it.

My experience has been the latter: my landlords are happy to allow me to paint or make minor repairs on my own dime. I’ll always paint because the standard beige/off-white apartment wall color is too blasé for me. If I’m going to live in a place for a year or more, I’ll gladly invest in a few cans of paint and hours of my time (and I love to paint). My biggest endeavor to date is a drop ceiling removal (which is another story, but one that was done out of sheer necessity. My pet peeve is a drop ceiling – a filthy, mismatched, aesthetically unpleasing one at that).

And for those who cannot do any painting? Our stuff – furniture, linens, artwork makes all the difference, of course. Dave (NYC) writes, “Moving into a house or apartment is part of the process too, arranging furniture and kitchen gear makes the place our home.” Lani writes, “I live in Chiang Mai Thailand, a growing mid-sized city, in an apartment that I rent. Since I move frequently, I feel like the first thing I want to change is the wall color! I wish I could but never can. Nevertheless, I almost always manage to make where ever I live more like home.”

We all seem to be on similar wavelengths: clean up the place. Paint if we can. Lovingly arrange our belongings. And if we own our homes, then take on one project at a time. For those who are renters and crazy enough to take on projects for the goodwill of the house, I’d like to hear your stories.

Anything we missed?

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*Hiatus to due to holiday distractions. Thanks for your patience. 

What Color is Your House?

Brattleboro, VT

Brattleboro, VT.

Before we get started talking about paint colors, let’s get one thing straight: historic preservation is not about telling you what color to paint your building. Really. While some colors are more historically appropriate than others (in restoration work, paint might be important), but paint is reversible.

Yet, despite its temporal nature, paint color is an important decision for many of us, whether painting a room or the exterior of our homes and other buildings. So feel free to offer up your opinion. How do you choose? Are there some colors that you think are more house appropriate than others? Are there colors that are more popular than others in your region? Often color speaks to the architectural style and era. For examples, Greek Revival buildings are often painted white while the Queen Anne style is known for many, varied color patterns.

Brattleboro, VT. Shingle style.

Brattleboro, VT.

Do you have a favorite house color? Do you prefer light palettes or dark palettes? What crazy paint patterns have you seen? Have you ever seen a house painted black?

Painting, Alligatoring Paint and Plaster Walls

Painting is one thing. Dealing with decades-old, failing paint on plaster walls is another thing.

The last post about this room, Paint Chatter, pondered what the problem could be. While I began the paint removal process before Christmas, I abandoned the project for a few months when my citrus stripper method proved unsuccessful. Clearly, this room was going to be difficult. Based on communication with the previous owners and their knowledge of the house’s history, supplemented by staring at and pondering the state of the walls while reading about paint and plaster, I came to a conclusion.

This one coat of blue paint was improperly applied 83 years ago. Beneath this paint, there was not a coat of primer; rather, it was applied directly to the finish coat of the plaster. In other words, this room had not been painted since 1928.

Before undertaking the paint removal project.

Over the course of these project abandonment months, the chipping/alligatoring/flaking increased in surface area and/or began to drive Vinny and me mad. If we were to run our hands over the wall, the paint would flake off easily. And the room looked horrible. It had been relegated to storing our books, boxes, files and power tools (during basement repair).

There comes a time when you just have to jump into a project and not look back. For Vinny and me, that time was two weekends ago. The oddly warm March weather allowed us to open the windows while painting.

Care to jump in and see how we tackled the paint problem? To refresh your memory, here is one section of one wall:

Alligatoring paint in the blue room.

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Before we proceed, I have to add this DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional painter or certified for lead testing or removal. Our house has not been tested for lead, but if your house or building was painted prior to 1978, you should assume that there may be lead. With that said, I am not recommending my methods, but merely sharing as a fellow historic homeowner. 

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First, the problems in list form:

(1) How do you remove alligatoring paint without removing all of the paint? Do you have to remove all of it?

(2) What do you do when citrus stripper does not work at all?

(3) What do you do when you are fairly certain that the only coat of paint on the walls has been there for 83 years? While I am not a certified professional in terms of hazardous paint (e.g. lead), I know that paint made prior to 1978 is likely to have traces of lead.

I love our house and value historic integrity; but, sometimes you have to conduct a few experiments and then make some decisions and/or concessions. In the case of our house we decided:

(1) Citrus stripper did not work on the walls. (I used it another room for peeling, not cracking, paint, where it worked well.) An orbital  handheld sander, with a bag for holding the dust, did not work either.

(2) We would remove the paint with a 1″ metal scraper. We would not to remove all of the paint from the walls. This would require an insane amount of work; but more importantly it would create more dust and paint chips than necessary. Rather, we decided it was best to tackle the failed paint areas and leave the rest undisturbed.

(3) Not to repair the surface cracks in the plaster, because that would possibly create more damage. The cracks are not structural or causing plaster failure, so we figured it was best to leave it alone. (If you are repairing your plaster, that is obviously a job prior to painting.)

(4) Not to build up the finish coat of plaster after removing paint. If our wall surfaces were uneven, we could live with that.

So, we set to scraping the loose paint while wearing respirators, covering the room in a plastic, disposable tarp. We set a fan to blow air outside and closed the door while we worked. It was not a fail-proof method, but it seemed to work well enough for our minimal purposes. (But because I was trying to keep everything neat, I did not take photographs of the paint scraping process.  And I’ll spare you from the frightening photograph of me in a respirator.)

We used a 1″ blade on a scraper and simply put enough pressure on the wall that when pulled down, it removed the paint. It was surprisingly effective in areas where the paint had completely failed. However, it did create nicks in the finish coat of the plaster, which was another reason to not scrape the entire wall surface (again – aside from the insanity of such a task).

A lot of paint came off very easily. We lightly sanded the edges of the paint-free plaster areas to hopefully insure that it wouldn’t flake under the new coats of paint.

After removing the paint and cleaning up the large paint chips that missed the tarp, we disposed of it and began to prep for painting, including taping all of the trim and window/door frame edges. We used grey primer, knowing that we were going to choose a darker color for the walls; on the ceiling we used white primer. This house likes two coats of primer, at least, because the shiny decades-old paint seems to slurp in that first coat of primer, making it look like it’s not there at all. A second coat seems to give a more stable looking coat. We also use two coats of paint on the walls and ceiling, for similar reasons. In addition, two coats or more coats of primer and two coats of paint help to even out the wall surface and hide some of the flawed areas.

And the finished product:

After! The color is Sailor's Sea Blue (eggshell finish) by Benjamin Moore. The wall on the right was the worst in terms of alligatoring paint.

Not totally after (pre-cleanup), but the walls and ceiling are finished.

The wall on the left in this photograph has a noticeable uneven-obviously-scraped surface, if you look closely in person. However, for now, my solution is to line that wall with our tall bookshelves.

How long will this repair last? I’m not sure, since the first coat of paint was improperly applied and is obviously still underneath the new paint. If it cracks and fails again, I’ll try a new way of paint removal. For now, this room has improved exponentially. Actually, I’m sitting in this room as I write this post.  The bungalow is an ongoing experiment, and I love it.

Now,  how have you dealt with paint related problems in your house? 

For the Love of Painting

A historic house is sure to come into your life with paint problems. Whether it’s too many layers, peeling paint, cracking paint, lead paint or wallpaper + paint, you are going to have some quality time to spend with your house. If you bought a historic (or old) house, you probably expected and/or wanted some hands-on repair work. However, some people, preservationists included, find no delight in painting. On the other hand, I love painting.

[Sidebar] If you are a Gilmore Girls fan, you will recall an exchange from the episode, That Damn Donna Reed, in which Lorelai convinces Luke to paint his diner:

LORELAI: Ok, how about this? I’ll help you because I love to paint.

LUKE: You do?

LORELAI: Yes I do.

LUKE: You love it?

LORELAI: I want to marry it.

LUKE: You have strange passions.

RORY: She likes washing dishes too. She’s multifaceted abnormal.

LORELAI: Ah come on, we’ll drink a couple of beers and we’ll sing some painting songs.

LUKE: Painting songs?

LORELAI: Yeah painting songs like, um…you know the songs that goes, um…’Grab your brush and grab your rollers, all you kids and all you bowlers, we’re going paintin’ today’. Say yes or there’s another verse.

I do like washing dishes, but I do not have painting songs, or at least not that I would admit. Gilmore Girls often plays in the background while I paint, if I’m not in the mood for some good country music or a Billy Joel/Bruce Springsteen combination.

Entertainment aside, why do I love to paint? Is there anything more satisfying than physical labor that results in a beautiful, personalized transformation on something you own?

If you’re like me and have a house that hasn’t been painted in the past 40 or 80 years (not kidding), you know it’s time to show the house some love. Cleaning the walls, scraping, sanding, plaster repairs, priming many coats and finally painting: when else will you be this close to the walls and ceilings of your house for such an extended period of time? Prep work for painting is not my favorite part, but it’s a necessary evil in order to get to the fun part: COLOR.

It is a labor of love. It’s a source of pride. I feel as though I’m communing with my house and getting to know its quirks: where the hairline cracks are in the plaster, where the pictures have been hung, how the ceiling meets the wall, where splashes of the first coat of paint remain on the edge of the door trim, how the walls look at all times of day. While that first or second layer of primer hides the brush strokes from the original paint, it’s easy to imagine someone lovingly painting the walls before me. A change, even one as simple as paint color, is refreshing in a building.

Painting takes a lot of time, particularly when the walls and ceiling need more than one coat of primer and more than one coat of paint. But, the end result is always worth it. Suddenly the house looks like it belongs to us, as opposed to looking like we simply moved in and set down our belongings. A new coat of paint brings new life to the house, as we begin the next chapter of volume of its history.

House painting = maintenance = care = preservation = love.

Having Izzy watch me paint is helpful throughout the long process.

Are you still so sure that you don’t like to paint? Or do you love to paint?

p.s. Next week, I’ll follow up on the Paint Chatter post about the specific paint problems in my house.

The Bungalow: Paint Chatter

How about some homeowner fun on this Monday morning? Let’s talk paint.

All houses have their mysteries, and ours is no different. One of the things that we loved most about this house was the minimal updating. In fact, the paint colors even gave the impression of decades ago and the shadows on the walls showed where picture frames and shelves had hung for those same decades. We placed “painting the entire interior of the house” on our list of aesthetic priorities. There’s just something so satisfying about a new coat of paint suited to your own tastes.

I love to paint. Honestly. Give me some work lights, good music or Gilmore Girls for the background, and I will paint all night long (I don’t really have time to paint during the day). Prepping and priming aren’t my favorite tasks, but I’m warming up to them. But I love colors: thinking about them for days or weeks, matching them, choosing lots of different colors, etc. And the end result is always worth all of the effort and the paint that somehow ends up on my face.

So far I have painted three rooms (living room, bedroom, guest room) with four to go (dining room, kitchen, bathroom and office).  The guest room, which is the smallest room, took the longest amount of time and the most effort because of peeling paint on the plaster ceiling. And then I was inspired to paint horizontal stripes (which, by the way, sound scary and require a lot of painters tape. but turned out great). I owe a great deal of thanks to a few flamingos and my sister Sarah for their help.

Now I am moving on to my next project: the office. It is currently a pretty shade of blue, but there is one big problem: the paint is chipping everywhere in this room. By chipping, I mean something akin to alligatoring. See below.

The chipping blue paint.

Another angle of the chipping or about-to-chip paint.

And that is only one small section of this room.  See here:

Most of the room looks like this.

More chipping. It’s on every wall. And some ares of the ceiling.

Fun, yes? Good thing I like a historic house puzzle. However, this one is driving me crazy. Why is the paint chipping like that? It is the only room in the house where this is happening. For reference, aside from the wall with the windows, all of the walls are interior walls. I’ve asked everyone who walks through the door, but no one has come to any conclusions, yet. Perhaps you can help. Here is what I know about the paint in our house (with thanks to the sellers who were kind enough to answer my questions):

The upstairs rooms have only been painted once, probably with one coat. Downstairs rooms have been repainted in the same color, except for the kitchen (new color). Any room that was repainted was done in the 1970s. The house was built in 1928. In other words, there is very likely lead paint in this house (pre-1978 as all preservationists know).

My questions relating to this information: How has one coat of paint lasted 83 years? Why is the blue room chipping and the other rooms are not? And, how am I supposed to remove that chipping paint? And will this happen again when I repaint?

Regarding the one coat of paint: it’s good to know now that some rooms have been repainted. But was lead paint that durable to have one coat last 83 years? Isn’t that impossible? So far in my paint endeavors I have not found evidence of multiple coats. Others have suggested that the house was wallpapered, then stripped of its wallpaper and painted. (I would not want that job.) Others have suggested that the house (the walls) froze last winter when it was unoccupied and unheated. And others have suggested it’s just a bad application in the blue room. That was my first instinct, but I’m still amazed at the other rooms that have had only one coat of paint.

Regarding paint removal: scraping creates dust particles and scratches the smooth plaster. Chemical stripping or something like citrus stripper is not effective.

While I love colors and painting, I am not an expert. If you have experience with chipping paint or can help me solve the old paint questions, I’d be very interested to chat. This room will take a while to finish; but, I will share what I learn and the end results.

Preservation Photos #42

Preservation pop quiz: Who wants to take a guess as to what happened to this brick wall? (The brick dates to ca. early 1800s, but is a veneer to a ca. 1785 wood frame beneath it.) Click for a larger image.

A Life in the Trades: June 2010

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010. February 2010. March 2010. April 2010. May 2010.

By Nicholas Bogosian

The Spring quarter is coming to a close and many of us are busy putting the final touches on a slew of school projects. This month I figured I’d just share some photos and let you in on some really exciting work students and I have been a part of in the last few weeks.

Field Lab: Wall Plastering

Field lab: wall plastering. Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

Abbe Popescu applies the browncoat on the chimney wall of the Morristown House. Jon Smith, our field lab instructor, has done plaster work on major projects including Edith Wharton’s ‘The Mount.’ It was thrilling to watch him mix his ingredients and apply the plaster with such ease and fluid technique. Abbe quickly became the plaster queen and has also plastered another wall in the house.

Field Lab: Plaster Stabilization

Photo courtesy of Abbe Popescu.

Photo courtesy of Abbe Popescu.

Photo courtesy of Abbe Popescu.

Abbe and I endeavored on a plaster stabilization project under the stairs in the Morristown house as well. One section of the ceiling was missing a significant section of plaster. We were wanting to stabilize the remaining historic plaster and apply new plaster to the exposed hand-hewn lath. We chose the washer method where a metal washer is counter-sunk into the loose plaster with a screw to help hold the plaster firmly against the lath again. A more conservation-oriented method involves drilling holes in the existant plaster and injecting acrylic fills to bind the loose plaster to the lath again.

Paints & Clear Finishes

Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

In my paints and clear finishes class I’ve been experimenting with creating different paints, stains, and “clear” finishes from “scratch.” A large part of this is just understanding the major characteristics of each and the varieties of components one can use in the final recipe list. All final experiments are displayed on wood sample pieces.

Of the many historic paint finishes I experimented with, egg tempera was one:

Egg tempera. Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

Plaster: Medallion

Molding tooth. Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

In Plaster class, the creation of my medallion continues. Most all of the aplique has been cast. Now that I’ve made my tin tooth, I can now begin the process of running my medallion base. Once all aplique has been set, I can prime and paint.

Field Lab: Timber Framing.

Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

Photo by Abbe Popescu.

Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

The basement at the Morristown House has been supported for a while now with shoring devices until we were able to re-build the timber brace supports. This morning we worked on creating mortise and tenons and fitting the final pieces together. All final pieces are fastened with treenails.

In other news, I’ve begun the planning stages for my project in Advanced Material Sciences class. We can choose any material we want and design an intensive preservation project based around it. I’m interested in wood conservation, specifically the conservation of early framing styles. Jon Smith, our field lab instructor is a timber framing and covered bridge aficionado and he told me about a local Farmstead with some really amazing (no, TRULY amazing) old timber construction.We went and looked at it, and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had since I’ve been here in Ohio. Floyd, the current owner of the farmstead talked to me for at least an hour and seemed to have such a deep connection with the place and with what it represented of early rural vernacular life. It’s still an operating farm and a popular site on the Drover’s Trail. It’s called the Kinney Farm and dates to the 1860s.

I’m still in the process of learning more about it, but there are currently five structures on the property all on the National Register. With Jon’s guidance, I’m going to document the Carriage house on the property (which is falling into quick disrepair) and repair the rotted sills and any other timber conservation needed. I am excited because this will involve some structural shoring techniques which I have yet to have any experience with. It will also be great because we will be dealing with early American building techniques/joinery/tools – all for a Nationally Registered structure! Can’t wait to share the experience with you PiP readers.

Preservation Photos #30

Taken while working on my paint conditions assessment lab report of a ca. 1888 barn: talk about some alligatoring and paint peeling, which were just some of the problems with this building. [Click the picture and zoom in for the best image.]