Pacific Northwest | June 15, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJune 15, home
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Architectural historian Donald Luxton (below) uses low-tech tools to uncover the original colors of the Dearborn mansion. Above, a drawing from his report indicates where each of three historic colors should be applied.
ON A COOL and uncharacteristically dry winter morning, Donald Luxton balances himself on a First Hill roof with one hand and scrapes away layers of paint with the other. Capturing a fingernail-sized chip from the wooden dormer he's working on, he gingerly pulls paint samples from his pocket and compares them with the chip. A smile breaks across his face; his hunch has proved correct. "It's very close to a copper patina green, which would make sense if it was meant to match the color of the original metal formed-and-painted roof."

Luxton is spending the better part of a day identifying the original exterior color scheme of the Henry H. Dearborn residence. The 1907 Classical Revival home at the corner of Minor Avenue and Seneca Street is one of four remaining "mansions" in a part of Seattle that once boasted more than 40 such homes. Since 1998, it has housed the offices of Historic Seattle, an architectural-preservation organization. After two years of renovation inside, it was finally time to tackle the exterior, and Historic Seattle has turned the building into a pilot project modeled after one Luxton helped start in Vancouver, B.C., five years ago.

Luxton, an architectural historian and conservation consultant, has devoted much of his energy into developing True Colours with staff and volunteers at the Vancouver Heritage Foundation. He was moved to start the program after realizing that the city had no grants or incentives for homeowners. True Colours established an exterior-color program with the corporate sponsorship of Benjamin Moore, which provides the paint, technical support and color matching for five family-size heritage residences each year.
Historic Seattle restored the original colors of the 1907 Dearborn mansion on First Hill as a pilot project modeled after one started in Vancouver, B.C., five years ago.
The key success of the program has been helping homeowners. But the underlying value for Luxton is getting accurate research on historic colors and turning them into a palette. The results of those efforts debuted in February this year — a regional color card published by Benjamin Moore Canada showing off historical Vancouver colors. This is something people assume exists, but historic color palettes often tend to be focused on Eastern colonial models, which are not always useful in the West.

In Vancouver, Luxton's group has documented about 35 authentic colors. They tend to be "deep greens, deep brick red for body and trim," he says. "Brown was a standard body color, usually matched to stain. We find a fair number of houses with mid-range body color, deep warm taupe colors and gloss black window sash. In general we find warm, saturated colors and buff or cream — never white."
True Colors for Seattle
Historic Seattle is planning to start a local True Colors program in 2004 with the cooperation of Benjamin Moore. Color analysis, color matching and paint will be provided. The program will be open to applicants whose properties are: listed on the national or state Register of Historic Places, designated landmarks in the city of Seattle or King County, or in designated historic districts. Homeowners whose residences are eligible for consideration as landmarks may also be included. Applications will be available later this year. For information contact Historic Seattle at 206-622-6952 or
For the heritage foundation, the impact of True Colours has been unprecedented and far broader than the group could have imagined. Luxton says they get up to 30 applications from homeowners a year. "We require municipal designation for participation, and we are always surprised that people will come forward to legally protect their houses for 30 to 40 gallons of paint." The foundation also provides a small grant toward the cost of painting and underwrites heritage consultation to determine the original colors — a total benefit of about $5,000.

The program has made people notice. People who aren't part of the program drive by, see the "true colours" and decide to paint their own houses accordingly.

Historic Seattle intends to follow the Vancouver model. Many Seattle homeowners looking to restore their houses get clues from black-and-white, late-1930s tax assessor's photographs. But only a color analysis can determine what's under layers of paint.

Luxton doesn't have high-tech tools. He scrapes through the layers of paint at a number of places that have been protected from the sun's fading rays and harsh weather. He looks at that first layer with an illuminated magnifying glass and compares the color with his set of sample chips. He then takes promising samples back to the office for examination under a microscope.
In Vancouver, B.C., 26 houses in a dense West End block are being painted in their historic colors. Deep blue with cream trim replace the pale blue-gray on this turn-of-the-century house.
"At the end, we sometimes come up with color schemes that people don't want. Some of our Craftsman houses come out as brown, and that's a hard sell. So we have developed a palette of green and deep red that is appropriate. Some people choose to adapt one of these color schemes rather than use the original. Since we are dealing with homeowners, we have to have some flexibility."

Fortunately, the Dearborn house was neither complicated nor radical in its original colors. There were three: a mid-range taupe for the body of the cement stucco house and its Doric columns (what one paint company appropriately calls Colonial Revival Stone); dark-green trim for all window and door woodwork (frequently called shutter green); and an olive green used on third-floor dormers and the wood-bracketed eaves.

The house was restored to its original color scheme this past fall. Now it's the poster child for the incentive program that will improve the visibility of designated residential property in the city and encourage others to think before they paint. Randy Tessman, the regional representative for Benjamin Moore, is excited. "To me, it's doing something regionally, and it's something we can do for this community."

Lawrence Kreisman is program director for Historic Seattle and serves on the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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