This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Photo of the presenter at the podium

Tania Alam

Tania Alam: Today I’ll be telling you how paint color palettes have come to the rescue of many buildings in America and saved them from demolition. This presentation has its basis on my master thesis, which was on the evolution of American historic color palettes.

I’ll start with a little background on color palettes and their beginnings in America and how they tie into historic preservation and more importantly, in the preservation of roadside architecture and attractions. So we all know that the term palette is frequently referred to a selection of colors that are often meant to establish unique visual styles in art and architecture.

View of six colors Downing recommended for cottage exterior paint

Andrew Jackson Downing’s color palette for cottage residences, (Cottage Residences,1842)

The concept of the architectural color palette in America can be traced back to as early as 1842 when Andrew Downing, the famous landscape designer, put forward six shades of colors than you can see on screen which he believed were suitable for the exterior of cottages and villas of that period. He wrote extensively against the use of the color white and on the proper use of colors for both interior and exterior of structures. So with the passing of time more color palettes were developed in America and made popular among the American consumers, especially after the Industrial Revolution, by paint manufacturing companies through the advertisement of the latest paint products.

On screen you can see an early example of the trade catalog, which was one of the most efficient forms of advertisement, so this is an early catalog showing Atlas Ready mixed paints from the eighteen-nineties. This is a later catalog by the Sherwin-Williams Company from 1932, so you can see how the number of colors and the types of finishes available to the consumers have increased.

Open view inside the catalog displaying 56 different colors for home exteriors

Exterior siding color palette from Sherwin Williams Company catalog, 1932.

This is a later collection by the Valspar Paint Company for the year 2017 and you can see how they’re offering more than a hundred colors to the consumers now. So evidently, the idea of the color palette and its advertisement remains extant today as demonstrating by the numerous color collections displayed in paints stores all over America.

Prominent among this is the historic color palette. So based on my research, I’ve defined historic color palette to be a group of colors which were selected by an individual or a committee, which are believed to have been used in architecture during different historic periods in America and can often be specific to distinct places from across the country. So study has shown that many of the historic color palettes have been derived in the process of restoring historic sites and structures, which were later produced commercially and made available to the public.

One of the major examples is of course historic Colonial Williamsburg where great emphasis was put on using original paint colors for the restoration of both exterior and interior of structures. The termination of original colors began with the simple process of scraping of finishes of walls by the interior designer Susan Nash in the late nineteen-twenties. And the process has since been developing continuously.

Palette includes 144 different paint colors

Benjamin Moore’s Colonial Williamsburg color palette, 2013

Major paint companies were involved with the commercial production of Colonial Williamsburg colors. In 1936, John W. Masury Company was the first to produce 16 Williamsburg approved colors that quickly expanded to 24 to include exterior colors as well. This is part of a later Colonial Williamsburg palette by the Pittsburgh Paint Company from 1943, so you can see the colors are changing, and there have been many companies involved with the Colonial Williamsburg color production. This is the latest palette by Benjamin Moore, which they have been producing since 2013 and comprises 144 colors. So you see how the color palette has expanded from 16 to 144. There was a time when it had 184 colors in its palette when it was being produced by the Martin-Senour company.

This updated palette is a product of close collaboration with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation experts using modern architectural paint research methods including microscopy, instrumental analysis and colorimetry complemented by archival research to provide this range, which they believe is accurately depicting the eighteenth century Williamsburg’s architectural finishes.

There have been other companies that have been producing historic color palettes for a long time, for example Sherwin-Williams. This is a paint catalog from 1981 when Sherwin-Williams Company launched the heritage colors to present historic America. Then this is the Shaker Village Colors, which the Sherwin-Williams company developed in conjunction with the Landmark Commission of the City of Shaker Heights in 1983. This was based upon an original Shaker Village color palette developed by the Van Sweringen Company in 1925 who wanted to regulate the appearance of the structures within the Shaker Village, they wanted static uniformity.

Then we also have the colors of historic Charleston, which Sherwin-Williams has developed a palette of 120 colors along with the Historic Charleston Foundation focusing on early colors from South Carolina. And now I can go on with the list of historic color palettes but this presentation is not about that, so what I’m trying to say here is that not all historic color palettes have been developed through historical research and architectural paint analyses. There are some palettes that are not advertised or even produced commercially but have played significant roles in the preserving of buildings and historic districts in American cities.

I’ll two case studies, color palettes that have originated from people’s imagination and yet have given definition too and they facilitated the preservation of architecture in these two cities.

View down the center of the street with two-story brick-front businesses on both sides.

Washington Street, Columbus Indiana, early 1960s (Francis O. Galbraith,Historic Columbus Indiana website)

The first stop is Columbus, Indiana. In March 1961, architect and designer Alexander Girard was offered the possibility of cleaning up and beautifying the storefronts and other business houses up and down Washington Street in downtown Columbus, Indiana by the president of the Irwin Union Trust Company. The project was part of a joint effort by the Downtown Development Agency and the commercial redevelopment committee of Chamber and Central Business Association to give the commercial zone of downtown Columbus, what was then commonly called, a facelift. Its purpose was to save the business district from turning into a jungle of conflicting colors and neon signage of various shapes and sizes and no, we don’t agree with that. Hailing from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Alexander Girard was an architect, was well known for his keen sense of order, he was better known as a designer and artist for his works with color in furniture and textile design, example that you can see on screen. Not surprisingly, color was one of his most important tools in the storefront restoration project. He created a palette of 26 colors that he thought was historically appropriate for the Victorian storefronts and commercial buildings along Washington Street.

This is view of Washington Street in downtown Columbus in 1965, right before Girard’s color scheme was applied. So I hope you take note of the different shapes and sizes of new signage here. This is the same view after the Girard’s design scheme was applied. The color scheme was intended to highlight the periods…architectural periods, specifically architectural details on the buildings and work simultaneously with the addition of new porcelain enamel signs and fluorescent lights installed above the marquee level on all stores to create a unified street scape.

It is said that Girard and his associates decided on the colors by examining and studying the Victorian structures. The exact methodology was never explained, perhaps it’s not wrong that Girard carefully studied the old Victorian buildings and he probably looked at popular colors from the time when the buildings were built before deciding on the color palette for the project.

Certain shades predominated the scheme in their application on store elevations, orange, green, white and buff with a sky-blue. The bright colors were used to primarily emphasize decorative elements such as the cornices, windows, and their lintels and trims, while more restful shades like sky-blue and beige were used on the main body of the buildings, creating what Girard felt was a balanced aesthetic for the block fronts.

Plan view of down town businesses showing planned building facade colors

Girard’s downtown Columbus, Indiana exterior paint design scheme, 1964 (Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe, 2017)

The design scheme that Girard developed ensured that no two storefronts of the same color faced each other like you can see on this map where it’s showing the color of the main body of the storefronts along Washington Street. To convey his idea, Girard took scale photographs of all the storefronts in the central business district. Then he and his staff painted each building with a combination of the 26 colors that he had selected for the project, mounted these paintings on Masonite boards and shipped them to Columbus, where they were exhibited on Washington Street. These panels were set up on wood stands to simulate the continuous street front along the individual blocks.

Today the mock-up scale models which Girard used to convey his idea of a harmonious streetscape to the public are considered artwork themselves and were recently exhibited at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany last year. These models are used in tandem with the color-coded maps that you saw in the last slide by building owners who want to recreate the look from Girard’s design scheme from 1965. The project came to be known as the model block project and pattern painting of downtown Columbus, as it was carried out from one block and to the other in phases. From newspaper articles pertaining to the progress of the project it appeared that after the first model block between Fifth and Sixth Street along Washington Street was completed in 1965, store owners from adjacent blocks began to ask for design schemes for their buildings. The whole process was never legislated or strictly enforced by the local government but was executed through voluntary acceptance from owners. This approach allowed the community to become involved in the restoration project, which led to an appreciation for the historic buildings in the area. The Columbus Storefront Project drew national attention for its success and became a model for later main street transformation projects.

Color applied over photographs to depict recommended building colors

Girard’s mock-up scale model of his color plan for building exteriors in downtown Columbus, Indiana

There was no scientific architectural paint analysis that was done to identify the original colors on the storefronts, however the design scheme developed by Girard was able to attract public attention and saved the old Victorian storefronts from being demolished. The main street revitalization program added to the burgeoning architectural movement in Columbus, Indiana in the late nineteen-sixties. Girard’s color scheme with the modern buildings by well-known architects, all helped to attract more visitors to Columbus, promoting Columbus as an archi-tourism center for people to appreciate modernism. Today the color scheme is not mandated and are just used by owners who want to maintain the aesthetic unity along Washington Street.

If you look carefully at this image that I took from Google Earth through the trees, you’ll notice that buildings along Washington Street may not be painted in Girard’s color palette but the road storefronts retain most of the architectural characteristic from the nineteen-sixties. Two to three story structures with decorative lintels over windows and almost continuous linings in the front.

The second case study is the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District of South Beach is known internationally for having one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world. Its signature is a range of colors that are used to paint the buildings lining the oceanfront, which include pastel shades of yellow, pink, blue, purple, red, green, and many more.

It is hard to imagine that South Beach was not such a bright place in the nineteen-seventies. Historically, the hotels, apartment buildings and stores were mostly painted in a white with little touches of jade green, ochre and such. Popularly known as the Art Deco District, the area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in May, 1979 making it the America’s first twentieth century Historic urban neighborhood. The National Register listing was the result of a large campaign led by this lady you can see on screen, Barbara Capitman, the founder of Miami Design Preservation League against a multi-million urban renewal project below Sixth Street along Washington Drive that threatened to displace the elderly population in the area.

Capitman and her colleagues were determined to stop that and believed that saving the buildings would… saving the buildings from demolition would help to serve the ultimate purpose. However, being listed on the National Register proved inadequate to prevent landmark buildings from being destroyed. Significant structures like the Boulevard Hotel was demolished in April 1980 and the New Yorker that you can see on screen by well-known local architect Henry Hohauser was torn down in 1981 in order to make way for what was thought to be more profitable construction. Developers thought that new and modern construction would increase revenue and save the district from its changing demographics. So you may ask what was happening in the late nineteen-seventies that people were so concerned about its demographics? During the nineteen-seventies there was a shift in population of South Beach. More and more older and retired people were moving in, crime was on the rise, businesses were declining, and the older buildings were falling into disrepair. The National Register listing did very little to persuade people to invest and spend money on saving these buildings and saving the neighborhood of South Beach.

Grid of 20 pastel colors

Pastel color palette for South Beach, Miami, Florida

This is where the color palette created by the interior designer Leonard Horowitz was able to make a difference. With his love for Art Deco designs, he shared Capitman’s dream to rejuvenate South Beach and reinstate its old glory from the nineteen-thirties. Leonard Horowitz recognized that the significance of the area lay not only in its large concentration of Deco buildings but also on the wide variation and fine composition of the Mediterranean and Moorish architectural influences that created this unique vernacular style of Deco buildings in Miami not seen anywhere else in the world. Horowitz envisioned the Deco revival through the use of color that he believed would add excitement to the dull gray dilapidated buildings along the beach. His idea was to accent the building decoration attracting attention to the architectural details on the Deco structures.

His goal was not merely to save the stylish buildings but to call attention to them but also to create this unified streetscape. The body color of one building would transfer to the trim of the next while the colors would change shades to maintain this continuity and create a rhythm. Horowitz’s color palette for Miami Beach was created using colors that he derived from his surroundings: the sun, the sky, the sand and the ocean. As a result of this Romanticism, South Beach today is filled with buildings that are painted in colors such as peach, cream, mauve, aqua, shell pink, green, Caribbean blue and many such colors with manful names. The buildings along Ocean Drive bring to life the idea of continuous streetscape that Horowitz dreamed of.

two views of the bakery exterior

Friedman’s Bakery in South Beach, Miami (1981) and after repainting. (Miami Beach Deco, 2011)

This is Friedman’s Bakery, which today is Manolo Restaurant, the first building in which on which Horowitz’s pastel colors were applied. It was painted with shades of cotton candy pink, periwinkle blue, buttercream and mint green, giving it the appearance of a fancy birthday cake. Although unexpected color combinations were not unfamiliar on the streets of Miami, public reactions initially were not very favorable. Within a year however, more buildings were painted, people started accepting Horowitz’s color palette and it became known as its paint and awning project where people had the trim and awnings of the commercial storefronts match the new color scheme that Horowitz had created along Ocean Drive.

More people began to voluntarily paint their buildings in South Beach with the colors from Horowitz’s palette. In 1982, the Bakery was featured on the cover of Progressive Architecture magazine photographed by the famous Steven Brooke. The magazine feature along with television shows like the eighties popular Miami Vice helped the district to reach a greater audience. And I must say and I hope you’ll agree that Miami Vice did a great job of showcasing the Art Deco buildings in the background and brought the much needed national, as well as international attention to the area and saved the buildings from further demolition.

Owing to the new color scheme, the district was rapidly gained popularity among tourists as an attractive vacation spot helping the economy to grow fast and sadly displacing the majority of the elderly population for whom the whole preservation movement was taken up. No matter the after effects, Horowitz’s palette played an extremely important role in the preservation and revitalization of South Beach historic district. Owing to this accomplishment, it is now mandatory within the historic district to use light pastel colors in order to maintain aesthetics that all in reality first appeared in the nineteen-eighties and are now considered historic. On screen you can see the guidelines for painting buildings facades within the historic district as instructed by the Historic and Environment Preservation Board of the city of Miami.

Moreover, the city has a list of approved colors which can be obtained from the building department and at present uses color numbers assigned by the Sherwin-Williams Company. No information however, was found regarding any company who may have worked with Horowitz himself or about any commercial production of the pastel palette in later years. Nevertheless, the palette is very popular in Miami and has been translated into other building finishes such as the Cement Tiles by the Villa Lagoon Company, which offers over seventy South Beach colors.

The pastel palette was not the only factor that contributed to the eventual preservation of the Art Deco District, but it certainly played a pivotal role in attracting and generating public opinion regarding the significance of buildings in the Historic District and the need for their preservation. As a result, the majority of the iconic hotels lining South Beach still stand today and are functional.

Two pictures of the hotel, side-by-side.

Colonial Hotel in South Beach, Miami in 1980 (left) and in 2018 (right)

Here are some of the hotels which are still standing in the next few slides, starting with the Colony Hotel built in 1935 and designed by the local architect Henry Hohauser, who is credited for shaping the Art Deco architecture in Miami. This is one of my favorites, Leslie Hotel, especially for its yellow color scheme. It was built by… it was designed by Albert Annis, built in 1937. This is its neighbor, the Carlyle, which was painted in similar colors when it was built in 1939, now pale cream. The Breakwater is one the major tourist attractions during the Art Deco weekends that are offered by the Miami Design Preservation League. These are just a few of the large group of hotels that have survived, almost all have gone through renovations in the two thousands but they are still standing and they probably showcase the architectural features that Horowitz so loved.

Now the inevitable question of authenticity. Looking at the pastel palette by Leonard Horowitz and Alexander Girard’s palette for the storefront restoration project, one has to wonder if authenticity should be a matter of great concern when the buildings [inaudible]. A concern for architectural historians would be that buildings were never meant to look aesthetically uniform as a result of its historical palette design by the two people. These are… but I would say these are the few cases where it would serve us better if we take the approach of overlooking and sacrificing sudden expectations and standards of historic preservation, maybe for the greater good. For South Beach, the pastel colors played a vital role in enhancing the look of buildings along the oceanfront. They created a pleasant aesthetic, which shaped the original characteristic of South Beach architecture and saved the historic buildings. It attracted tourists from all over the world, bolstered the economy of the area, and continues to do so.

The storefronts on Washington Street in downtown Columbus looked neglected before Girard’s palette was able to revive an interest in the classic Main Street. It provided visual harmony along the street without having to demolish and reconstruct all the buildings. Both color palettes while being more creative than fully historically accurate became an inexpensive, simple and easy way of interesting people in history. In their attempt to restore and save the historic fabric, both the palettes essentially created a new aesthetics in there respective areas. The pastel palettes in many hotels, on the other hand, Girard’s palette for the Victorian structures may not be used in the present time but it proved successful in preventing the demolition of historic buildings. Today Washington Street can be seen lined predominantly with two to three story commercial structures that have retained most of its historic architectural characteristics.

So by creating aesthetics that were attractive to people, both palettes were able to highlight the value of historic buildings to the local communities, they engaged the local communities and created this link to the past. They became a tool for historic preservation that was accessible to all. These color palettes came to the rescue of buildings, which were otherwise destined for demolition and consequently define and preserve the [inaudible] architecture in Miami, Florida and Columbus, Indiana. Thank you.

Speaker 1: Questions?

Speaker 2: Thanks so much for that presentation, it was really interesting to see that the incredible differences between the two examples that you gave, and I’m just curious if you have a sense of how many communities across the country have adopted some sort of a color palette like this? I mean, how widespread this might be?

Tania Alam: These were actually the two color palettes that were created from someone’s imagination, and I would have to look really, to see if there are other examples where people have accepted such color palettes. I don’t know right now but I’ll find it and get back to you.

Speaker 1: Other questions?

Speaker 3: In Columbus, is the color palette mandatory now or is still voluntary?

Tania Alam: It’s actually a voluntary, was never legislated or made mandatory.

Speaker 3: As opposed to in Miami where there is design guidelines.

Tania Alam: Yes

Speaker 1: Just as a comment, in our community in Natchitoches, in the National Historic Landmark District you have to get your external colors approved and buildings… homes that were probably white when I grew… when they were built and aged and when I grew up are now a wide variety of colors.

Tania Alam: Thank you.


Tania Alam is  an architectural conservator at Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. (JBC) in New York City, NY. Alam has a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation. She graduated from Columbia University with her Master of Science in Historic Preservation in 2017, and received her Bachelors of Architecture from Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (Dhaka, Bangladesh) in 2014. While at JBC Alam has conducted conditions assessments, testing and analysis. Special interests include architectural paint, historic color palettes, color psychology, and energy efficient building design.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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