I have received several inquiries from neighbors regarding repainting of buildings within the historic district. For the record, please note that colors are administratively approved by the Office of Historic Preservation staff, as the City of San Antonio Historic Design Guidelines do not address paint color.

As a professional architectural historian, I have to admit I am conflicted regarding exterior paint color for historic properties. In San Antonio, most house facades were painted white before and during the Victorian Era. Color was only used on trim, due to the high cost of colored paint. My own Folk Victorian Style house, built in 1904 and designated as an individual historic landmark, is painted brown with red and purple trim as accent colors. My paint has dark, muddy colors, close to colors that would have been available during the Victorian Era but realistically would not have been used on such a modest house. Most of my neighbors on my two-block street have white facades, and only their trim woodwork is painted a different color. My neighbors’ houses - some historically designated, some not - more accurately reflect the historic color palette available in San Antonio during the era in which our houses were constructed than my own house.

Throughout the nation, preservationists have embraced the practice of “Don’t faint, it’s just paint.” Even in San Antonio, the only historic district that specifically prohibits color in its design guidelines is Government Hill. When a house’s exterior walls were painted all black, the neighbors decided this was an inappropriate color and stated that in their guidelines.

In the 1970s, “colorists” in San Francisco began painting Victorian houses in light pastel colors. Pastels are not historic colors, as they were not produced in the late 1880s because color processing techniques used to make paint were not yet available. Many people do not know this fact and try to emulate the “painted ladies,” perpetuating a false record of history.

Historic guidelines in Grapevine, Texas state: “The paint colors selected for a historic building will greatly contribute to the historic character of the building and surrounding historic district, and as such should reflect the historical age, period and style of a building, accentuate the architectural features of the design, and represent the current owner’s taste. This method of selecting colors and locations of colors does not mean that every house or building in a historic district or of a particular period or style should be painted the same color. There is a wide range of attractive colors, which may be combined in hundreds of ways to provide for individuality with overall continuity.”

Having contemplated the issue, I believe each historic property has a specific style and era in which it was constructed that dictated the color palette available at the time of construction, and it is that color palette that a historic property owner should be encouraged to use.

- Cherise Bell,
KWA Executive Director