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Building Knowledge Series: Historic Paint Analysis

Giving Justice to the Past: Our Investigation Into a Historic Building's Original Hues

New paint is a given in most interior building renovations, expansions, or capital improvement projects. It’s one of the quickest and most cost-effective methods to spruce up a tired interior. While these upgrades can address worn surfaces, selecting new or evolving styles and trends can skew the original design intent and feel of a building. When new colors are part of a more extensive renovation to building systems and layout, a building’s character – especially one historic in nature – can be easily degraded if not handled with meticulous care and attention to detail.

It’s an issue we’re looking at carefully at an ongoing project at the Madison County Courthouse located in Upstate New York. Goals of the project include an expansion and enclosed link between the courthouse and county office buildings, as well as bringing the facility up to current building and accessibility codes. The courthouse, built in 1909, features many of its original architectural details. These include original custom millwork, historic light fixtures, marble floors and wainscoting, stained glass, and ornate plasterwork.

With so many notable details, Madison County had a keen interest in preserving and restoring the building’s original qualities while making all required programmatic changes. While the physical form of the building is highly ornamented, the current paint palette and finishes pale in comparison, with standardized white walls and inconsistent finish materials. Madison County and the LaBella project team decided to explore methods to determine the building’s original paint colors. Architectural conservation specialist John Vaughan from Architectural Conservation Services in Bristol, Rhode Island, was brought onto the project team.

John studied Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University and has extensive experience in investigating and executing preservation projects ranging from interior finish analysis of the Smith Opera House in Geneva, New York, to sculpted stucco conservation at the Fleur-de-Lys Art Studio in Providence, Rhode Island. Along with his partner, Dyan Vaughan, and a little assistance from LaBella’s environmental team, John collected paint samples from various locations of the courthouse to uncover previously used interior finishes.

At first, identifying decades of changes can seem like a complicated forensic investigation. However, the process is simpler than it would seem. Much like the layers of a rock formation or growth rings in a tree, each wall holds a lot of information about a building’s history. Every layer of paint or finish applied throughout the building’s past remains below the more recent layers, providing a series of records that can be analyzed.

First, John runs a standard flashlight parallel to the wall’s surface, scanning it for any noticeable irregularities or distinct datum lines. In most cases, any previously applied paint pattern or stenciling will telegraph through the top surfaces, giving a clear indication of where to pull samples from in order to get the most holistic picture of the former palette. Finding and noting these changes in the wall’s surface at the beginning of the process helps to ensure that no details will go unsampled.

Next, a small hole is drilled into the wall or other substrate, just large enough to look into with a scope similar to the type a doctor uses to look into a patient’s ears, nose, or throat. The hole is drilled so that it extends all the way to the substrate, therefore capturing every layer applied since the substrate’s installation. A brief initial inspection can reveal the general number of paint layers as well as some of the bolder, easily identifiable hues.

Using a surgical scalpel, a slightly larger piece (about ¼ to ½ inch in size [1]) is carved out and placed in a small plastic bag labeled with a coded name based on the specimen’s location within the building. Photographs and precise measurements of the sample spot with a corresponding coded label are taken to correctly document and identify each individual sample. This serves not only to locate paint colors later on, but also to help in comparing samples across the board. By noting each of the found layers as well as the sample’s location, John is able to give a broad timeline of when each color was introduced. Of course, this doesn’t mean a specific date, but rather general groupings of time in which certain colors were added.

After careful excavation of multiple samples from several locations within the building, John returns to his office to thoroughly analyze the samples under a microscope. With extensive training in historic preservation, he is able to identify individual layers of paint as well as each layer’s hue, chroma, and value (pigment, saturation, and lightness or darkness, respectively), matching it to a color found in the Munsell Color System. (For more information, see the Munsell Color site) He additionally matches each sample to a current commercial color from brands like Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore, or the like.

So what were the results of the sampling from the Madison County Courthouse? Much to our surprise, several areas turned out to be similar shades of white, beige, or grey to what currently exists. However, other areas revealed rich browns, golds, and sages. Our findings help to inform the direction of the color palettes and finishes to be used in the soon-to-be renovated courthouse and addition. Madison County can rest assured that the alterations made to the people’s courthouse will preserve and enhance a piece of the region’s history. We can’t wait to share the results when the multi-phase project is complete in 2019.

[1] “Guidelines For Identifying Historic Paint Colors”. N.p., 2016. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.
About the Author
Danielle Lewis, CID, IIDA, WELL AP
Senior Interior Designer

Danielle is a Certified Interior Designer and WELL Accredited Professional with a focus on K-12 and higher education projects. She recognizes trends in pedagogy that cross over from both markets and strives to create spaces that prepare learners for graduation and beyond. Danielle is passionate about designing learning environments that enhance student success, joy, and well-being, and believes that the best designs stem from engaging with stakeholders early in the process to craft solutions that capture the clients’ visions and goals.