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Tracing America's House Styles and Exterior Paint Back to Colonial Times

Do you have fond memories of the homes you grew up in? Better yet, can you describe them architecturally? (Most people can't, so don't feel bad.) How about an easier question: Can you remember what color your houses were? Here in the United States, there's a marvelous tradition of residential architectural styles, and a solid heritage that many of us aren't completely conscious of.
California Paints recently came out with A Guide to Color, Styles and Architectural Periods - a great brochure that's part of their Historic New England paint collection. Here are the styles and paints that they surveyed for U.S. homes. Click on each period name to see California Paint's color collections, historically accurate recreations of how our homes were once painted (both exterior and interior colors are shown - usually the bolder colors are how the interiors were decorated, versus the more subtle exterior hues).
  • Colonial - Mid 1600s-1780: European settlers set these style precedents as they brought over what they were familiar with back home. A limited number of colors were available at the time, mostly made from naturally-derived pigments (earth, stone, etc.). Framing and trim elements were painted in colors that boldly contrasted with surrounding or untreated or neutral wood and masonry walls. 18th century homes show Georgian England classicism and are mostly found on the East coast, while colonial architecture in the Southwest shows off their Spanish Baroque roots. These homes usually had white trim and strong contrasting colors. Bold and bright.

  • Federal - 1780-1830: Georgian boldness gave way to more delicate house detailing, and "federal" got its name from the new American republic. Interest in Greek and Roman antiquities was high at this time as Americans were fascinated with newly-excavated classical sites. Colors were lighter, paler, and delicate with whites, pale shades of gray, off-white, and ochre used on exteriors.

  • Greek Revival - 1825-1855: This was America's first "national architecture." A growing population fueled a big home building boom, and this style was carried across the country, spreading out from Eastern seaboard cities. Greek temple inspired, there are classic columns and pediments even on the most simple of homes, with exteriors painted white, off-white, ochre, and gray along with white trim. Shutters and window sashes were primarily painted dark green or black.

  • Victorian - 1840-1900: England's Queen Victoria's long reign saw many residential home styles embraced under the Victorian umbrella, including Romantic Gothic, Italianate, Egyptian Revivals, Second Empire and Stick styles, Queen Anne and Shingle styles, and Colonial Revival. Middle class suburbs were springing up in the United States, and industrialization was hitting the building industry with mass-produced millwork and trim. Exterior house paint saw a growing range of hues with the diversity of architectural styles. Using a 3-paint color scheme became the norm; one color for the siding, the second for the trim, and the third for sashes, shutters, and doors. Even the body colors could vary to differentiate shingles from clapboards (some homes had four or five colors - see the "painted lady" style in the top photo).

  • 20th Century Eclecticism - 1900-1955: Here's the period where our architectural styles forged ahead into two entirely different directions. One saw copying of historical architectural styles, and the other moved away from everything traditional that had come before. And for interior design buffs, it's this dichotomy that's responsible for today's "traditional versus modern" style divide! The traditional movement saw "revivals" of older styles from the past, with "modern" or "contemporary" homes going into brand new directions like Craftsman, Four Square, and Ranch. Exterior house surfaces used stuccos, brick, stone, and concrete in addition to wood siding and trim. The Tudor and Craftsman houses were usually painted dark browns, maroons, deep greens, and olives. Classic revival homes are usually lighter white, gray, gray-blue, gray-green, or yellow with white trim and window sashes and dark shutters and doors. Modern homes throw out the color book, but usually tend towards light neutral colors with bold, sometimes primary color accents. 


SheffieldSays Question

What style of home did you grow up in? (And can you remember what colors it was painted?) 


Interested in learning more about home architectural, periods, and design? Take a look at Sheffield School's Complete Course in Interior Design. At Sheffield, you'll learn how to transform a space, create color schemes, and select furniture, lighting, and accessories. 

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Reader Comments (9)

nice artcle mr
May 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranggiseo
From Ancient time people used to experiment with the looks of their houses.Vibrant colors were always the favorites.Each country have unique history of great architectural styles and designer thin which is still is common is use of two way slope design in most of the countries.
People with skills of imagination and drawing ,can be great architects.
May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArchitects in Dublin
very amazing design friend
June 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMahogany Furniture
Thanks a lot for the very informative post. Ancient and hispanic house styles really looks great and I'm planning to have the same design soon... =)
June 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercpa websites
Thank you for sharing, the good things. Thank you
June 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPandora Jewellery UK
Waoo.. very amazing design my friend, i like...
June 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCormel S
Thank you for helping me to remember. The small house I grew up in, after moving from the mill house where I was born, was small with white siding and the windows and doors had dark trim. It also had dormer windows and a dark, shingled roof. The front porch was concrete, with small pillars and a porch swing. The garage was separate and was beside of the small house that enclosed parents and 4 siblings. My father was in WWII, and then Korea for quite a while. Later, a 2-story extension was built to the back, and the back yard was full of a vegetable garden, grape arbor with rhubarb under it, and always had the huge sunflowers,my Father's favorite flower, and of course, a sour apple tree.. There was a root cellar and furnace in the basement area. The house was backed by a very cold, spring-fed creek, named Beaver Creek.
June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEsther W Campbell
Concerning clay tile roofs, most of the tiles on my 85 year old have been cracked by roofers who ‘know how to walk on them’.Is there such a technique? And also, when replacing a portion one roofer advised to glue tiles directly to deck, denying the need for ventilation or water runoff. Most roofers simply suggest tearing off the whole roof and starting over (!!??) for a small leak that turned out to be from no boot being around the vent stack.
Urban projects have a space on Architecturewards. Most cities have relaxed their zoning that allows residential spaces to be integrated into large buildings. This is why you see hotels alongside serviced apartments and townhouses. This is why hotel architecture is different today compared to the previous decade.
February 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdragoslavlazic

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