Updated: Oct 16, 2019
It’s autumn in the Berkshires—a bit chilly on the porch—and the sugar maples on the hillside opposite have unfurled their glorious golden yellow. Especially in autumn, the yellow paint color on this house (which is not my house, but one I’m selling as a realtor) appears to have been stolen from nature. In fact, it was. The story of this paint color and this house is the perfect one for an autumn day.
The house was built in the 1750s, during the Georgian period, and the color is true to the time. It was created using a mineral pigment—yellow ochre, which was derived from the soil, as was red ochre, the iconic red of the New England barn. Yellow ochre paint was popular in the 18th-century, because it was plentiful, cheap, and cheerful.
When California Paints and Historic New England, the non-profit preservation organization, partnered to create a line of authentic period paint colors, they called this one Georgian Yellow. Having been around for so long, the hue has gone by other names—Chrome Yellow, for instance. It’s the bright hue of the double yellow line in the middle of the road, chosen because it is hard to miss.
While the paint color was common, the house itself, with its center hall and end chimneys, is more of a rarity. Vernacular farmhouses like this one most often had center chimneys. Center halls and end chimneys were more often found in the grand homes built by the wealthy, where the center hall often provided a sight line from the front door through to a door at the rear of the house to a garden or landscape. Likewise, from the center hall of this farmhouse, the sight line is to a pretty meadow, an old apple orchard, and, beyond those, cornfields and sky.
Most likely, the person for whom this house was built was a well-to-do farmer who wanted his home to communicate his wealth, status, and taste. Later, circa 1800, in the Federal period, in keeping with new fashions, he updated the door surround and the windows to a six-over-six configuration, which the current owners retained.
The chimney on the left served the home’s cooking fireplace. Though that is no longer in place, its massive13-foot-long footing can still be seen in the basement. The chimney on the right contained two fireplaces, one in the parlor, the other in the bed chamber above.
But back to the paint. In the 18th century, this color would have been mixed on site by the house painter using yellow ochre mineral pigment, linseed oil, and white lead. Yellow ochre pigment was also often mixed with white lead and a bit of black to create an optical green—the sage and olive hues so associated with the Colonial period.
Thing is.... what the naked eye sees as olive today, was often, in its time, a blue. The first synthetic blue pigment was discovered by accident by a chemist in Prussia in 1710; it was called Prussian Blue. To create paint, this blue pigment was mixed with white lead and linseed oil, and Prussian Blue became wildly popular. But, because linseed oil yellows and darkens over time. those blues, so vivid in their day, now appear olive to the eye. The only way to know for sure what a color in this olive family originally was is to do modern paint research, which probes the chemistry of the paint.
As you see, I’m an architecture geek, and a historic paint geek. Before moving to the Berkshires, I restored a Federal house and a Georgian one, which we painted this very yellow. I think one of the extraordinary things about owning a historic home, and restoring it, is that if you slow down enough and are curious enough, the house teaches you things. Your home is then not just a house: it’s an intellectual journey, an amazing trail of discovery.