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What Color Should I Paint My Historic House?

Choosing Exterior Paint Colors For Your Historic House

What color should I paint my old house? Man, I hear that question all the time. Is all one color a good idea or should I use multiple colors and if so how do I determine what parts to paint what color? If you’re one of those people confused about the subject of what colors to paint your house know that you are not alone.

In this post, I’ll try to give you some guidance and resources to help you pick the right color or combination of colors based on your home’s architecture and age. You’ll leave with all you need to make a good decision. Feel free to share this post with your neighbors as well to make your neighborhood a little more beautiful.

Painting Personalities

Before we get into choosing the right colors you’ll need to figure out what personality you fit into. There are three types that your paint job will fall under and it’s important to determine which of these you want to focus on before you begin picking colors.

The Purist

These folks are serious about historic integrity. The purist is someone who limits themself to only colors that were previously used on your house. This is usually reserved for historic restorations of truly significant historical buildings like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, or some of Green and Green’s Craftsman Bungalows where accuracy is most important.

However, if you want to do a little detective work and keep your house true to its original form and colors, this option might work for you. You’ll need to either find some old color pictures (good luck if it’s old) of your house or ask some long time residents if they remember, or it might require a little elbow grease and a paint scraper to find out what’s underneath all those years of paint which is the most likely way to find the answers you long for.

If you do go digging for paint on old clapboards, remember that the colors you find are most likely well faded from their original appearance. Once you have the color, you can bring a sample to your local paint store and have them color match your home’s old paint. Remember though, that your house likely had several different paint colors between the body, trim, and accent colors so you’ll have to do some excavating in different areas of the house.

The Classicist

This is the category I fall into personally though I have my purist tendencies at times. In this category, the detective work is minimal. You simply research color palettes that were available and popular when your house was built. Every time period had its popular colors, and the further back in time you go, the fewer colors there were to choose from.

Many paint makers today have “Historical Color Collections” which re a close approximation to the historic colors of the past. Visit my Historic Paint Colors resource page for links to multiple historic paint palettes you can pick from.

For very old houses the exterior paint colors traditionally emulated natural building materials like stone, brick, tile, copper, bronze, and exposed timbers. Another good place to search are old postcards. Though they were usually hand colored the colors were filled in correctly (most of the time).

Last tip for the The Classicist is to research your house style. Each style had a cluster of options when it comes to historically appropriate color schemes. If you’re not sure what your house is check out my What Style Is My Old House post to help diagnosis your abode.

The Rebel

No matter how much you love the history of your house, you may not be interested in doing the work of divining its former paint colors or even care to dig through old color charts. You know what colors you like and that is that. Well, in that case I say, “Go for it!” There is nothing that says a house has to be any color other than what the owner wants.

The Purists will cry and you can just gather their tears and drink deeply, but they have to remember that color is easily changeable and does no permanent damage to the structure of a house, so painting is something every owner should feel free to do in a way that fits their style. It’s how you make the house your own.

So, whatever color scheme you choose we’re behind you even if it’s an all “Pepto-Pink” house. Just remember that whatever color scheme you choose, you’ll have to live with for a long time. It’s just as expensive to paint a house in a well thought out color scheme as it is in a poorly planned one.

Picking a Color Scheme

You know your personality now, so let’s start picking paint colors. For the Purists you’re pretty much stuck with whatever you find under those layers of paint, but for the the Classicists and Rebels you’re gonna have to combine some colors and we want to make sure those colors work together.

Below are a few options for combining colors to get powerful results.


The use of just one color can be powerful. It can also be frightening. Don’t just think of those as a single color for everything because this style can often utilize lighter and darker values of that one color. Monochromatic color schemes are typically understated, conservative, and sophisticated.

The White House
The White House is a perfect example of monochromatic color well executed

It may be cliche, but The White House is a perfect example of a stately historic building that uses a monochromatic color scheme to enhance its appearance. Some buildings scream out for a this monochromatic style and other have more flexibility so don’t feel like it’s a cop out if you go this route.

Two Color Simplicity

Almost as simple as the monochromatic looks is what I call the “two color simplicity” because it is used on historic homes all the time. There are two version of this style. Most common is painting a white or off white color on the windows, trim, and doors (sometimes even soffits as well) and using a bold color for the body of the house. Since any color pairs well with white you have complete freedom to pick a color that speaks to you and your home’s style.

The other version which is more rare today, but was fairly common historically, is to paint the body white and add a single color (historically blue or forrest green) to the trim, windows and doors of the house. Personally I’m not a fan, but it’s not uncommon for historic homes. Below is a picture of a farmhouse we restored recently at Austin Historical that went with this color scheme based on the historic paint evidence.

Robert’s Ranch in Immokalee, FL

Three Color Accent

This is usually my favorite color scheme for use on a historic home because it provides the most depth and visual interest. Similar to the two color simplicity but in this case you add a third color to the accent features of the window sash, door slabs, screens/storms, and shutters.

In this color scheme you’ll choose one color for the body, one color for the trim and soffits, and the third colors is saved for those special accents that need special attention. You have to be more careful about how you choose colors here because you’re mixing three colors now and if you’re not careful you can clash. Typically, the trim is done in a white or off white color (my favorite is White Dove by Ben Moore or Dover White by Sherwin Williams) and then all you have to do is choose a body color and accent color that work well and hopefully pop against the white trim.

My former Bungalow in Orlando, FL with a Three Color Accent paint scheme

The three color scheme really shows off the different elements of the house and helps provide clear delineation of those elements as opposed to the two color simplicity that can cause windows and trim to merge into one.

The Painted Lady

This is a color scheme that really only applies to one age of house and that is the Queen Anne or Folk Victorian where you have the option to throw the kitchen sink at it in terms of house many paint colors you can use.

Martha’s Vineyard Campground victorian homes Image Credit: 123rf.com

Three colors is the bare minimum and some homes will have upwards of a dozen colors on the unique gingerbread, jigsaw cut balustrades, and decorative shingles. Have some fun and get creative if this is your house, but remember at some point you’ll have to repaint this.

Whether you do this yourself or pay someone else, the labor is intensive to have all these different colors. In fact, the reason these ornate beauties fell out of favor in the early 20th century was because people began to get into the maintenance cycle of repainting and they opted for a simpler design that was less costly to care for. This overly ornate style actually helped precipitate the move toward the simple scaled down Bungalow that became so popular.

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18 thoughts on “What Color Should I Paint My Historic House?

  1. My house went on the city tax rolls in 1896, but having crawled across joists in the rear gable, I know that section of the house was built later. So maybe the front and side gable sections are older? The whole house was defaced with asbestos siding sometime in the mid 20th C., so there was only one coat of paint on the whole thing. When we removed the siding, there it was: faded school bus yellow with maroon/brown trim. Not pleasing to 20th C. eyes.
    Further, I’m in an historic district that was created because of the large number of unmodified original houses. There were five yellow houses across the street and I thought one more would be too many. There are no paint color restrictions in our city historic districts.
    I wrote to a friend who was an historic site supervisor in Texas. She’s a fan of the last quarter of the 19th C. She asked for photos, then sent back detailed paint suggestions. based on popular combinations from the era. Does “ask a friend who’s into your house’s era” count as an additional way to choose paint colors?

  2. If their house is in a historic district, they may have rules on what colors they can use. I would think they would know it, but thought it should be mentioned before they put on a color(s) that may not be on the list.
    Our group was trying to get a historic lighthouse and there are rules under the National Park Service, that clearly state it must be a color it was painted before. In a few cases the lighthouse may have changed colors, if so, you would have your choice of those colors.

  3. Hey Scott, I noticed your “Robert’s Ranch in Immokalee, FL” picture and it brings up a whole sub conversation that I’ve been having with friends. The dark window colors are trendy right now and is most of what I see on new construction and retrofits at this point. I really don’t think they work well with the modern windows with Low-E glass – which tend to also be darker – and obscure any lighter window coverings behind them (causing the combined mass to be a big black hole). Do you have any suggestions for people to choose dark window colors without creating this “black hole” effect?

  4. I greatly appreciate the part of your article that suggests finding out your own color palette when painting a historic house even if it’s not the same as the previous ones. The house that my mother lived in for most of her life is in need of renovations, and we wanted to help her do this so she can still live in it while giving it a fresh and updated look. We figured that she would appreciate the house looking different from what it did before as it would give her a new outlook on the old place, so I’ll take that into account when we find an exterior painting service to help us.

  5. Great article, it gave me some ideas,. Since I am learning more for painting house, I am confused about which brand should I use. Should I use BM or SW? Whats the difference between the same color of these two brands? I use Deluxe, thinking of moving to these brands.

  6. It’s a great website for people like us who want to revive the old style look of a house that never has had a major renovation. We still need all new plumbing and electrical before we can get a hot water heater to take showers, do laundry and wash dishes. Do you have any advice how to proceed with our 1947 bungalow?

    1. Terri and Paul, welcome! I’d get at least 3 quotes on the electrical and plumbing since prices can vary so much. In your situation, I’d pick up a copy of my book Living in the Past. It may sound biased, but for a good overall plan and idea of what to do its the best resource for homeowners like yourselves.

  7. I want to repaint the entire interior of my house. So can you please suggest me the quality paint for the exterior of my house that will remain long lasting?

  8. Glad to have found this. Our 1920s American Foursquare stucco house is white, and in need of a new paint job. We’re thinking of colors at the moment, and I hadn’t thought of researching popular colors at the time it was built as inspiration. Great idea!

  9. I just recently purchased a book called Victorian Exterior Decoration by Roger Moss and Gail Winkler that has a lot of good info about painting an old house.

  10. We are (hopefully) soon to be home owners of an old farm house, your website has been really helpful! Thank you so much, keep it up!

  11. These are great information regarding the exterior painting of historical houses. Those who have this type of house will surely find these facts helpful for their improvement projects. Thanks for sharing a very informative article.

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