Your True Colors

Choosing Exterior Colors for Historic Homes

Three painted brick homes. Photo: Karen Cohen

Are you ready for a change of scenery? You don’t have to leave DC to achieve that. Stay at home, pull up a chair, pour a frosty beverage, and fan out a color paint deck. You’re in for a visual treat. Changing the exterior paint color of your home can chase away the doldrums and beautify your neighborhood. Stand out from the pack regardless of whether you are planning to sell your home or keep it.

Tom Faison, realtor on the Hill, instructs his DC clients, “The first thing to consider is the house next door. The exterior color of your neighboring house can restrict your choice of paint color.” Faison explained that the position of the sun also affects exterior as well as interior paint colors. If the house gets a ton of sunshine on the front, the color will be a bit washed out. If the home is mostly shaded, colors will appear darker than normal. A general rule is one color for the facade, a second color for trim and moldings, and a third color for “pop” on your front door.

There are no paint color regulations in our historic district, and permits are not required for changing the facade color unless you own a landmark-registered historic home. However, Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) recommends using historically appropriate paint colors on the exterior of your building. Founded 60 years ago, CHRS helps to preserve and protect the historic architectural character of DC’s largest residential historic district. Its efforts helped Capitol Hill secure designation as an historic district in 1976.

If you favor nostalgic house colors, the Williamsburg Collection from Benjamin Moore has 144 suggestions such as Cornice Tan, “inspired by the 1760 color,” or Galt Peach, “produced in the 18th century.” Sherwin Williams has Arts and Crafts colors and suggests combos such as Bunglehouse Gray with Bottle Green trim and Copper Red. Frager’s Hardware in Capitol Hill sells mostly neutral paint colors for exteriors, with gray and tan at the top of the list. Sherwin Williams’ Colorsnap Visualizer app for Android and IPhones allows the user to snap a digital image of a blooming peony, a copper penny, a turquoise ring, anything at all, and then it matches paint choices with coordinates from a stock of 3,500-plus paint colors.

Most homes in historic Capitol Hill have brick exteriors, and these require specific paints. “Brick homes were being painted at the beginning of the 20th century,” noted Beth Purcell, chair of historic preservation for CHRS. “Once you paint brick, you are into a commitment of repainting or removing the paint.”

Juan Wilson, paint manager at Frager’s, recommends high-quality, water-based paints for brick facades. He says, “You shouldn't use oil-based paints on masonry as it traps water which can destroy your mortar. Allow new masonry surfaces to cure for at least 30 days, ideally for a full year before you paint. If this is not possible, apply a good quality alkali-resistant sealer or latex primer followed by a top-quality, 100 percent acrylic exterior paint.” James Nicolson, vice president of residential sales and operations of Tech Painting, concurs. “Water-based paint allows the moisture from within the house to pass through the brick wall so the house can breathe.” Remember when painting brick, he adds, “Any paint that seals the brick like an alkyd paint can cause damage to the brick through spalling.” Spalling is when water damages bricks and causes them to flake on the surface and deteriorate.

With historic homes, some 100 years plus, expect issues with existing lead-based paint. Painting contractors should be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and the District Department of Energy & Environment to handle lead-based hazards safely. The paint company you hire will provide a copy of a pamphlet, “Protect Your Family from Lead,” if your house was built before 1978.

If you want to keep your home close to the original exterior color, do a little research. DC Office of Tax and Revenue’s Real Property Tax Database lists the parcel of land and city block number you will need to look up your address. Digitized plat maps are available online through the Library of Congress. Learn how your neighborhood developed and find building permits from the National Archives, which holds all permits issued from 1877 to 1949.

Once you know the year your home was built, you can investigate authentic paint colors from that era. For example:

  • Box-style homes from the Federal period (1780 to 1830) were painted creams, pumpkins, sage greens, and muted blues.
  • Wooden rectangular homes with triangular rooflines and long front porches from the Greek Revival period (1825 to 1855) were plain white, with window and door trim dark green or black.
  • Victorian homes (1840 to 1900) featureornamental wooden lacework, turrets, and decorative brackets painted to contrast with brick, stone, or wood facades. Synthetic pigments created in that period allowed brighter blues, greens, purples, and yellows.
  • Colonial Revival homes (1900 to 1940)with symmetrical facades, front doorways with sidelights, multi-paned windows, and gabled roofs were generally white with black shutters and a red front door. Other popular colors were dusty blues and earth tones.     

As you can see from the majority of homes here and elsewhere, windows, doors, and trim work are places to contrast your home’s facade color. Andrew McBride of Image Painting states that the older wood trim in Capitol Hill homes is easier to paint because it has less rot. That’s because it comes from old-growth trees. Wood trim that is rotted or damaged will have to be replaced before painting. Replacing wooden window sashes requires a permit. Apply to the Historic Preservation Review Board; they oversee and strive to maintain the historic physical appearance of Capitol Hill.  If you don’t, you could face a fine starting at $500.  

Be sure that the company you are hiring has experience with stucco, wood, or brick exteriors. All reputable painting contractors will be licensed and insured and will have workers’ compensation as well as public liability insurance. David Mahoney Painting Company, painting for over 37 years, notes on its website, “There are many ways you can find a reputable contractor to do your work. Ask friends, neighbors or your local paint store manager whom they would recommend.”

The most important step is to check licenses and references of each potential contractor. Mahoney strongly advises getting at least three bids to compare costs, with the lowest bid not always being the best choice. Discussion with a potential contractor should include prep work, lead paint removal if needed, when the job will start, when the job will finish, what paint will be used and what finish – gloss, flat, or semigloss. Be sure the color that you select is presented on a small surface area such as a paint board sample. It may look different when outside in sunlight, shade, and outdoor lighting at night.

Obtain a written contract; never accept verbal agreements. The deposit amount and final payment should be clearly outlined; review your contract carefully before signing. “When done correctly, a quality paint job will bring enjoyment and increase the value of your home,” says David Mahoney. Go ahead, show your true colors!


Useful Contacts

Frager’s Hardware, 1323 E St. SE, Washington, DC, 202-543-6157

Capitol Hill Restoration Society, 420 10th St. SE, Washington, DC, 202-543-0425.

Tech Painting Company, 1406 Leslie Ave., Alexandria, Va., 703-684-7702.

Image Painting, Andrew McBride, owner, 703-657-8115 or 202-543-1914.

David Mahoney Painting Company, 6180 Landsdale Place, Bryantown, Md., 866-967-6711.

Tom Faison, DC realtor, 202-255-5554.

Tech Painting Company. Photo: Janet Crowder
Peeling paint on brick. Photo: Karen Cohen
Colorful rowhouses. Photo: Karen Cohen

Karen Cohen is a Capitol Hill resident, certified residential planner, master gardener, award-winning photographer, and journalist. She can be reached at

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