Let’s assume that your house has good bone structure, with well-proportioned windows and a roof of the appropriate pitch. What accents or period components would make it come to life or read as “colonial” to you?
Curb appeal and a warm welcome start with the front door. For most colonial and Colonial Revival homes, a raised-panel door is most appropriate—unless, of course, your house was built in 1706 and still has the original clinch-nailed plank door. The panels on true Georgian, Federal, or Greek Revival doors tend to be beveled downward where they edge toward the stiles and rails, creating three-dimensional depth.
If your door is just a bit shabby, give it a brush-up with paint, preferably in a period color that has both earth pigments and some gray in it; palettes offered by companies that sell milk paint are ideal. Another period treatment, especially for high-style homes, is a mirror-like finish, typically in black. To achieve it, use an ultra high-gloss enamel, such as Dutchlac Brilliant from Fine Paints of Europe. Sand the door smooth and rub it with a tack cloth, then apply two or three thin, even coats with a natural bristle brush. (For the highest degree of polish, allow ample drying time and sand between coats.)
For another quick makeover, simply change the door hardware. For homes that lean toward Colonial Revival, consider polished brass for the entry set, mailbox, house numbers, or even a kick plate to make the entry gleam. For early dwellings, use accoutrements in black iron or steel.
If the windows look a bit naked or the overall impression is too spare, adding shutters can bring contrast, color, and architectural definition to the façade. Exterior shutters can be either decorative or operable (meaning they open and shut) in a number of styles. The most common of these is the louvered (horizontal slat) shutter. Another early American style is the raised panel shutter, which, like raised panel doors, have solid beveled panels that float between the stiles and rails. Or mix it up with a combination shutter that marries louvers at the top with panels at the bottom. For the most authentic look, finish off the installation with authentic early American hinges, pintels (the turning part of the hinge) and shutter dogs, or holdbacks. The dogs come in a surprising array of patterns, from classic “S” and rat-tail shapes to star, scallop shell, and rosettes.
Lighting is another quick fix. A pair of lantern-style sconces flanking the front door—or an onion-shaped pendant mounted on the porch ceiling—telegraphs era and style. Adding a post lamp along the walk or path from the street to the door is also an easy way to add period ambience to the exterior. Post lights do more than light a dark path at night: they are style markers that set the stage for the approach to the house.
Speaking of the approach, the warmer months are a great time to lay a brick walk or to set stepping stones in place. In early America, brick paths were laid in dozens of patterns. Some of the most common (and beautiful) are running bond (bricks laid in vertical rows, staggered row to row), herringbone (bricks laid in a chevron pattern), basketweave (pairs of bricks that alternate like warp intersecting weft), and the self-explanatory diagonal.Frame the entry path to your vintage cottage with an arbor overflowing with climbing roses. A picket fence can help, too. (Photo: StockBoston)
Most modest early homes lacked what we would consider landscaping today. To dress up the area around the front door, add a pair of planters in a colonial motif, like lattice. Window boxes of cedar or other water-resistant woods painted a classic white and overflowing with trailing vines and colorful flowers bring life to any façade.
Finally, consider enclosing the front lawn, with a fence and an appropriate gate. While the split rail is authentic to early American landscapes, the picket fence was speedily adopted throughout the 19th century, and, kept low and simple, looks appropriate in many settings. The picket fence’s success is due to three things: first, picket fences are inexpensive to make; two, they are “friendly” to passers-by, and three, the slat design allows for creative wiggle room. The tops can be shaped in dozens of patterns—square, round, diamond point, acorn, fleur-de-lis.
As these simple fences are naturally repetitious, do something decorative to the gate to set it apart. Vary the heights of the pickets, and choose gate hardware and latches with as much care as you would spend on the entry set for your front door.