Don’t faint, it’s just paint
One of the most common questions I receive regarding galvanized sheet-metal facades is what constitutes a historically appropriate paint scheme. The question is simple enough but the answer is a bit more complex. I believe that there are three basic approaches, each with its own merits.
The first approach revolves around the original intent of cast- and pressed-metal ornamentation, which was to imitate the appearance of carved stone. “Our fronts are susceptible to a high class and artistic finish in imitation of cut stone by proper application of paint and sand” professed Mesker Brothers in their 1891 catalog. This means that earth tones and particularly natural grays, yellows, tans and even pinks would offer the best chance at convincingly mimicking the appearance of stone. But one does not necessarily need to use only one hue, although when we consider a monolithic stone facade this seems like a natural decision. Monochromatic schemes with subtle shade variations are very much possible, as are analogous schemes. A subtle accent can be effectively utilized and it typically reveals itself only upon closer examination. When this “original intent” method to color selection is executed properly, it fools many onlookers to this day. One direction to beware is choosing overly dark colors. Due to an already monolithic nature of the facades, a dark monochromatic scheme can result in a very heavy appearance, which is less desirable especially for upper stories.
The second approach is much freer and allows for the often rich ornamentation to be highlighted with contrasting colors. Think of the Painted Ladies of San Francisco. Since Mesker facades were developed and attained popularity during the Victorian era, an owner could have easily chosen to paint his facade in a three-, four- or five-color scheme. It is as appropriate to do that now. This is the preferred approach of many present-day owners, although the effectiveness can fall apart during implementation. Some colors regardless of their relative location on the color wheel simply should not be used together. In my opinion, this is a tougher approach to implement because it is more subjective. However, when done properly the results can be simply beautiful.
The third and even more subjective approach is the “whatever you want” or “boutique” method of color selection. I often conceive of it as being part of the Painted Ladies tactic when dealing with sheet-metal facades, especially since the Victorian color palette had many more hues available than the present-day paint manufacturers’ historic palettes make us believe. No one would argue with a statement that not all present-day owners or contractors/painters have good taste when it comes to color selection; why should we believe that all Victorians did? Whatever color schemes happened to be in vogue, many an owner had chosen a very conservative (and/or awful) color scheme for his building or had to scale back his original five-color scheme because of cost. Some things never change… However, while we shouldn’t say that bad color schemes are without historic precedent, this is not meant to be an excuse for modern poor color selection. Not all precedents should be imitated. It is also not meant to condemn “whatever you want” as only resulting in unattractive paint schemes. Neither mimicking stone nor a true Painted Lady, many modern-day (and historic) paint jobs fall into this category. The shortfall tends to be in their somewhat tentative execution. They often look diminished or unfinished because an observer feels that the ornamentation isn’t properly highlighted, although that can be accomplished with a limited number of colors. It’s not about the number of colors but their selection and placement. There are several examples below of very effective color schemes that employ limited hues.
All other variables being equal, I don’t necessarily believe that one approach is more historically appropriate than the other so long as the resulting appearance is tasteful and satisfies the design intent. Essentially, I would argue that in this case visual or aesthetic appropriateness trumps historic appropriateness. Since the metal must be painted and we have enough evidence to support the historic appropriateness of the wildest colorful concoctions of the Victorians, we can justify the same today. Because of its abundance of ornamentation, the material allows for tremendous versatility in color selection. And since paint has to be regularly applied to sheet-metal facades as part of their maintenance, there’s always an opportunity to correct unsightly color choices of the past. As the saying goes, “don’t faint, it’s just paint.”
Personally, I do prefer the first approach (stone mimicking) albeit for more practical rather than aesthetic reasons. Firstly, it is less likely to result in a visually unacceptable scheme. Sure, a gray or tan facade can be kind of drab (again depends on specific hues and placement), but drab is far better than appalling, which is what often happens when people slap all sorts of paint colors without abandon onto a building. Additionally, the “original intent” approach allows for a more stable visual hierarchy where each group of motifs is (more or less) equally represented. The multiple planes of a facade, especially at the cornice level are allowed to portray their intended depth and shadows. This is true for most monochromatic paint schemes, not just those based on earth tones. Conversely, a high-contrast color scheme by its very nature highlights certain ornaments while receding the others. Plane and relief depth can be more difficult to grasp as well. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but as an observer I’d like to see all of a facade and not just the preferred motifs of the current owner. In that regard I prefer restraint over personality. However, I have seen some wonderfully colorful schemes providing such a rich visual feast that I forget about historic appropriateness and get absorbed in enjoying the experience. In that sense, such color schemes are the most successful.
I have to admit that I am also a sucker for a particular monochromatic approach that is the least historically appropriate. I love metallic colors because, well, they look like metal! They hint at the true identity of the material like no other color does, and in some way appear truer than even the most convincing stone mimickers.
But I’ll let the paint do the talking. Below, in no particular ranking order, are some of my favorite color schemes I’ve seen from either approach. Some are more successful than others, while others still only show glimpses of what could be. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.