How We Revived Our House's Paint Scheme

Black and white is classic, but it didn’t bring out the best in our Italianate.
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Black and white is classic, but it didn’t bring out the best in our Italianate.
A balanced polychrome paint scheme (top) enhances the house’s handsome details, which were dulled by the previous black and white (bottom).

A balanced polychrome paint scheme (top) enhances the house’s handsome details, which were dulled by the previous black and white (bottom).

Our agent had run out of things to show us when she hesitantly mentioned one more house, an estate sale that hadn’t been listed yet. At first we had only the street name, so we walked up and down saying, “I hope it’s this one . . . but I bet it’s that one.” Of course, it turned out to be that one, the dilapidated Italianate, in which nothing had been updated in 40+ years.

We bought the house in 2007, and for three years, my wife, Kiki, stripped layers of wallpaper, painted, refinished stairs and floors, tiled bathrooms, and patched scarred walls. The chimneys were rebuilt. We hired a craftsman to build a library of solid-oak bookshelves to house 1,000 philosophy books. (I’m a theoretical physicist by trade, with philosophy as a hobby. What does Kiki do? See above.)

There was little curb appeal to start: a browning lawn with a deteriorating concrete walk running down to the sidewalk. The original porch (evident in a 1901 photo we found) was long gone. By the second summer, we’d found a landscaper to make Kiki’s patio and pergola designs a reality, and we planted silver lace at its corners for shade in the summer. Kiki stacked rocks to make walls around the yard and planted a curbside garden.

The most arresting change, though, was to the color scheme. The house's original yellow brick had been painted a flat white, relieved only by heavy black trim, which had indeed called attention to the heavy Italianate cornices, but also obliterated all detail.

Five of the house's seven colors are visible at the soffit.

Five of the house's seven colors are visible at the soffit.

So we refreshed the dull, crumbling paint with a full-of-life Victorian palette. The body paint is a pure tint that takes on a different color depending on the season and the time of day. Kiki had trim colors in mind, and was encouraged that similar colors could be found on Castle Kilbride, a local Italianate that’s now a museum. She spent hours staring at the house over a paint fan deck and a cup of coffee (or glass of wine), imagining. Since painting the exterior, we often spy passersby stopping to look; one person said the house had been “brought back to life.”

Kiki also put up the tin ceiling in the kitchen—you should have seen all the cuts in her hands! We further kept costs down in the kitchen remodeling by not starting from scratch. Cabinets were moved and reused for a kitchen that looks like it evolved over time. We removed a “floating” wall that had bisected the room, blocking light. A black-and-white scheme (creamy cabinets, dark soapstone countertops) works much better here than on the Victorian exterior! Of course, Kiki couldn’t resist color, choosing a red linoleum floor and a yellow accent around the peninsula.

The house is for sale because work has us moving to the Boston area. We got a good offer the very day we opened it for showing. Next up: A Craftsman-flavored Chalet that needs lots of TLC!

Exterior Paint Colors

All paints from Benjamin Moore