Sunday, December 7, 2014

Victorians And Their Grand Schemes

I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving. Wifey and I certainly did. We spent ours in the company of some very good friends, at their lovely home in Windsor Square. Windsor Square is one of L.A.'s oldest, most well-preserved neighborhoods, but its name is not familiar even to most native Angelenos, because it is usually lumped in with its neighbor to the west, Hancock Park.

Windsor Square was established in 1911, when the area was at the western extent of the developed city. It was designed from the first as a top-drawer development, with large lots, private streets, underground utilities (the first in L.A. to have them), and a deed requirement that each lot contain a single-family home valued at a minimum of $12,500, a significant amount for the time.

The residents soon learned how expensive street maintenance was, deeding the streets to the city in 1920, but otherwise steadfastly maintained the original character of the neighborhood in the face of rapid urbanization and ever-increasing population density. Their successful efforts to this end blazed a trail followed decades later by the Farm House's own neighborhood, Bungalow Heaven.

After dinner, we took a walk around the neighborhood, and our friend pointed out some of its most lovely homes. The one that really fired my imagination was a massive old Victorian mansion, a Colonial Revival that, while less ornamented than a Queen Anne, still looks plenty fancy. It has the familiar late-Victorian asymmetric massing, shingled siding over a masonry foundation that extends up through half of the first story, dozens of lovely leaded windows, and a big round tower at one corner.

The only sour note for me was the painfully inappropriate color scheme the house bears: brick-red paint on the foundation, cream yellow on the shingles, and white on all the trim. I fell in love with the place nonetheless, but I couldn't help but think that the house would be even lovelier in proper livery.

When I got home, I looked the house up, and learned that it was built in either 1890 or 1898 (my guess is the earlier date) much closer to downtown, and it was moved to its present location in 1915. This was a common procedure in those days, moving mansions westward as the city expanded.

When I saw a picture of the house from 1910, in its original location, I was satisfied to see that back then the masonry foundation was unpainted, and the shingles were dark—apparently also unpainted, as was often the custom then (the Farm House's own shingle-sided areas were also originally unpainted). The trim color was very light, as was fairly typical of Colonial Revival Victorians back in the day. It was the same house, all right, but it looked a lot different with that scheme. It looked a lot better.


I knew my brother Jon would be interested, so I told him a little about the house and sent him the 1910 picture. When he responded favorably, I followed up with more information and a current picture of the house. When he saw the second picture, he was quite disappointed. He saw a house in poor repair, one that desperately needed extensive restoration of missing elements.

This reaction baffled me at first, because the house is in great physical shape. Indeed, in that neighborhood it would have to be. Then I looked at the current picture again, and compared it with the 1910 picture, and I realized how he had gotten that impression. The house in the current photo looked truncated and washed-out compared to the house in the old photo. If I had just seen the photos, and not the house itself in person, I likely would have come to the same conclusion as Jon.

The thing is, Jon was fundamentally correct. The house as it stands now is lacking something essential. It is lacking the proper paint scheme, the kind of scheme the house was designed to bear. I know this to be true because I've seen this phenomenon at work before, right here at the Farm House.

In the post "An Instructive Transformation," I presented a rather dramatic before-after comparison of the middle front dormer, showing how the application of the four paint colors put the dormer in the proper context, both within itself and with the entire house. That has been the most commented-upon post, both on the blog and off, in the blog's history.

The transformation that the pictures revealed was so startling that it seemed to defy rational explanation. Nevertheless, as with most things Victorian, there in fact is a rational explanation.

* * *

My intention from the very beginning was to give the Farm House the proper livery for its vintage. Since I had no clues back in the early planning stages what the original house colors were, I undertook to formulate a paint scheme for the house that I might have chosen had I been the one to give it its first painting, one that was tasteful and appropriate for 1885 Pasadena.

I had no idea what that might entail, so I began to research the matter. I soon found the definitive book on the subject: Moss, Roger W. and Winkler, Gail Caskey, Victorian Exterior Decoration: How to Paint Your Nineteenth-Century American House Historically (1987: Henry Holt & Co., New York). It's out of print, but it's available used at Amazon.

This book is a thorough tutorial on the way Victorians painted their buildings, as well as the reasons behind their choices of color and placement. Most of the following information comes from this book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Even if you are not planning to paint a Victorian yourself, it will greatly enhance your appreciation of Victorian architecture, and give you some insight into the Victorian mind as well.

For the sake of clarity, I am going to simplify this discussion by focusing it upon the way Victorian views acted upon the decoration of Queen Anne Victorians in the Pasadena area. Rules have always been made to be broken, but the rules I set forth in the following were broken less often here than in many other areas.

The authors divide the body of observed Victorian paint schemes into three types: Scientific, Historical and Boutique. Scientific schemes are the result of a thorough forensic analysis of all available evidence to construct a complete history of the colors a structure has worn; this is typically done with other people's money, and is thus obscenely expensive. The book tells you how to do a rough approximation of this analysis yourself, but at the time I could find no evidence of any previous colors (as it turned out, I was looking in the wrong places).

Boutique schemes are more commonly known as "painted lady" schemes, the wild, multi-colored schemes that reached their zenith of popularity in '60s San Francisco. This was definitely not what I was after.

That left us with a historical scheme, which the book defines by the observance of two simple rules:

"1. The colors applied to any building should be selected from those that were available and considered appropriate for the date, type, and style of the building at the time of its design and construction.

"2. Those colors—whatever they may be—should be applied to the structure to enhance the design in the manner intended by the original designer, builder, and owners." (Ibid., pp. 7–8)."

This described my original intention precisely; the rest of the book gave me the information I needed to carry it out.

I am no expert in architectural history, but I know enough about Victorian styles to be confident in stating that the Farm House is decidedly a Queen Anne Eastlake, even if its symmetrical layout makes it rather a distinctive one. I believe the completeness of its ornamentation raises it well above the level of a merely vernacular structure, especially now that we know the front dormers originally had bargeboards. That and its 1885 vintage mean that a High Victorian paint scheme is by far the most appropriate.

As the name suggests, the High Victorian era was the ultimate flowering of Victorian aesthetics, a time when all the various theories advanced during the era reached their widest acceptance.

As I wrote in the Journal, the Victorians had a complex definition of architectural beauty: "Victorians viewed architecture as above all an expression of beauty. Andrew Jackson Downing, perhaps the single most influential American Victorian architect, separated this expression of beauty into three aspects: beauty of utility, or fitness; beauty of propriety, or expression of purpose; and beauty of form and sentiment, or expression of style.

"Fitness in a dwelling refers to its primary function, that is, to provide shelter from the elements. Beauty is found in this regard in the utility and comfort a dwelling affords its inhabitants. . . .

"The Victorians found a certain beauty in a home that by its outward appearance expresses its purpose as a habitation for humans, as opposed to one for animals. It does this by its chimneys, its verandas, and the number and size of its windows, features that declare to the world, 'This is a proper place for humans to live.'

"While the beauty of a house's fitness and propriety may be said to appeal to one's mind, the beauty of its appearance should appeal to one's soul. Victorians saw beauty in a house that conveys a sense of unity, of consistency in its form, style and ornamentation. They derived this concept from the forms of nature. A tree is composed of a trunk, branches, foliage, and (depending upon the season) flowers or fruits, yet one naturally views these various parts as a single entity, an organic whole, because its parts have a relationship that to the eye is innately appropriate. A house should present itself in the same manner, with a logic and consistency to its various parts that induce the beholder to view it, too, as an organic whole. Moreover, just as different trees may by their natural design radiate majesty, or friendliness, or whimsy, so may a house by its design and details radiate a certain personality. It is these qualities of organic wholeness and personality that appealed to the Victorian soul."

The High Victorian practice regarding color selection and placement completely incorporated this tripartite definition of beauty, as I shall soon strive to make clear. First, however, I need to discuss the particular way in which Victorians viewed color during this period.

High Victorian color theory was based upon physiological perceptions of color. No doubt as a child you did the old experiment of staring at a color on a printed page for a while and then quickly looking at a white wall, discovering that what you saw through your eyes on that wall was a completely different color. The color you saw on the page and the afterimage you saw on the wall are complimentary colors; based upon this observation, they arrived at a color wheel based upon red, yellow and blue as the three primary colors, with their respective compliments green, purple and orange as secondary colors and the various pairings of secondary colors as tertiary colors.

Victorians knew, because of the afterimage in the eyes, that complimentary colors placed next to each other would increase the perceived intensity of both. Also because of the afterimage, colors placed adjacent to each other that are not complimentary will be perceived differently. For example, when red is placed to orange, the red will appear more purplish and the orange more yellowish.

Thus, Victorians understood that for a house to appear as an organic whole, as dictated by beauty of form, the choice of colors was crucial. No longer was color selection considered purely a matter of personal preference; it was to a certain degree dictated by human physiology. In other words, the house's color palette had to be considered not as a mere collection of pleasing colors, but rather as an inter-dependent system of colors that played nicely with each other.

There were two ways to approach the issue of color harmony. One was harmony by analogy, employing colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel; the other was harmony by contrast, employing colors opposite (complimentary) to each other. In this way, one would ensure that the afterimage effect would enhance the colors rather than cause them to clash.

Of course, this only describes the relationships among the colors used; it says nothing about which colors to use. Ah, but the Victorians had something to say on that subject as well.

At the beginning of the Victorian era, people typically used white for a house's body color, using whatever contrasting color they desired for the one trim color that was used. This was due in some measure to the fact that at that time painters had to mix paint on the premises, and white was the easiest color to mix while avoiding color variations between batches. Even so, white was a popular color then as now because it is bright and it goes with everything.

Then, along came our old friend Andrew Jackson Downing, whom I quoted at length in the first volume of the Journal. He was the preeminent tastemaker of the Victorian era. In his 1842 book Cottage Residences, he assailed the practice of painting a house white as being "entirely unsuitable, and in bad taste" (Andrew Jackson Downing, Cottage Residences (New York, 1842), p. 22). He held that a white house stood out in glaring disharmony with its surroundings. He mounted a crusade, in his books and in magazine articles, to stop the practice; with his considerable influence, his effort was eventually quite successful.

He in fact discouraged the use of any pure hues. He believed that a building should be in harmony with nature, and as such he promoted a palette of muted shades reflecting in a subtle way the colors found in nature.  For a time his prescriptions were followed faithfully; but the color genie was out of the bottle, and while his concept of keeping the colors harmonious with nature was maintained, the specific colors used grew ever more assertive as the years passed.

The ebullience of the post-Civil War reconstruction period, combined with the integration of contemporary color theory and the advent of ready-made paints, brought on the rich colors and complex color schemes of the High Victorian era by the late 1870s. These schemes were an integral part of the Queen Anne style that was predominant in Pasadena during its first few decades of existence.

As I mentioned above, High Victorian color schemes were devised so as to reflect the tripartite Victorian definition of beauty. Beauty of utility, of a house fulfilling its primary function of providing safe harbor, is emphasized by the trim color and the way it is applied. More often than not, the trim color is darker than the body color, and it is applied so as to outline the structural elements and provide a visual indication of the way load is  transferred to the foundation. The body color of the foundation, if not unpainted stone or masonry, is always dark to emphasize the structure's firm anchorage. Quite often the color used is dark brown, suggesting a connection with the soil.

Beauty of propriety, of a house's fitness as a human habitation, is also conveyed largely by the first trim color, which outlines and thus emphasizes the windows, verandas, and other such features that make the structure a fit place for humans to live. The second trim color, generally applied exclusively to the sash (the parts of the window holding the glass) and the doors, further emphasizes these features; proper ventilation was a crucial feature to the Victorian mind, because before that these features were considered luxury items in numbers beyond the bare minimum, and were often insufficiently provided in more modest homes.

Beauty of form and sentiment, of the style expressed by the house, is analogous to what we would call today aesthetic or artistic beauty. This is conveyed in the color scheme by the body colors used, how they are deployed, and how they harmonize with each other, the trim colors, and the surrounding environment. The body color is always lighter than that of the foundation (unless the foundation is unpainted masonry or stone), and shingled tympana (the triangular areas under gables) bear a lighter version of the body color if not simply left unpainted. This upward progression in body colors from dark to light is intended to reflect the transition from earthly darkness to heavenly light.

Another element to consider here is that Victorians fancied windows as a house's eyes, which is why the sash (the frames bearing the window panes) are picked out in a second trim color. In pursuit of this fancy, one often sees the putty bevels around each pane painted scarlet, a bit of stage makeup that makes the "eyes" really pop!

Queen Anne homes are always ornamented, and while the ornamentation may be whimsical, it is, when properly executed, never arbitrary. There is a consistent logic to its use.

Think of a Queen Anne house's ornamentation as the accessorization of a well-dressed woman's outfit. She's not going to wear a necklace around her shoulders, or a brooch on her ear. Each accessory is designed to highlight and beautify a specific area, according to a logic that is self-evident when seen.

Similarly, the various spandrels and corbels and bargeboards—the "gingerbread"—of a Queen Anne are designed to highlight and beautify specific areas. The difference here is that the logic is not self-evident—unless rendered so by the proper selection and placement of colors. Queen Annes are specifically designed to bear a High Victorian paint scheme, and aesthetically they don't make sense without one.

Generally speaking, the gingerbread was painted the trim color to associate it with the house's structural framework and to set it off from the body of the house. And of course, the relationship between the trim and body colors was crucial. Based upon the two methods of insuring color harmony, the trim and body colors were either complimentary (e.g., red and green) or adjacent (e.g., red and gold).

Veranda floors and the tops of steps, when made of wood, are traditionally painted some shade of gray, usually in the medium range. This color is practical, because it hides dirt and it goes with everything.

There was one place on the Victorian exterior that was traditionally painted one particular color no matter what colors were used elsewhere: veranda ceilings, which more often than not were painted sky blue. This was done to emulate the sky, and was intended to heighten the feeling of spaciousness in the veranda and the interior rooms that looked out upon it. Sometimes, fluffy white clouds were added to carry the effect even further.

This may all seem far too complicated a regime to have gained such wide acceptance, but it is merely one example of how Americans of that time approached life.

The post-Civil War period was a time of rapid scientific and technological advancement. A steady increase in productivity meant that no longer did the vast majority of Americans have to spend most of their waking hours just to feed, clothe and house their families. Land was cheap and plentiful. A growing belief in the future led Americans to start exploring life's expanding possibilities.

It is no surprise that people of this time would put a high priority upon, as Andrew Jackson Downing put it,
. . . bestowing upon our homes something of grace and loveliness--in making the place dearest to our hearts a sunny spot, where the social sympathies take shelter securely under the shadowy eaves. . . . (Downing, Andrew Jackson, Victorian Cottage Residences (1981: Dover Publications, Inc., New York), pp. viii-ix.)
For the first time in our country's history, ownership of a stylish, comfortable home and some land did not require significant wealth, so it was only natural that this was the first of life's exciting new possibilities a great many Americans explored with great zeal and dedication.

* * *

Now, I'd like to use the example of the remarkable transformation of the Farm House's central front dormer to illustrate in a small way the logic of a High Victorian paint scheme in action.

Here are the before and after pictures from the earlier post:




Of course, merely repairing the dormer's skin and giving it a good coat of white paint would have been a considerable improvement in itself, but those improvements alone do not account for the transformation evidenced by a comparison of these pictures. While I believe these pictures speak for themselves, for the sake of discussion I'll put forth the general consensus opinion of the various commenters.

In the Before picture, the dormer appears to be an appendage plunked down upon an unsuspecting roof. The scalloped shingles and especially the lace-like appendage just beneath them look like silly, corny, pointless afterthoughts, like a vinyl roof on a Sixties land yacht.

In the After picture, the dormer appears to be an organic part of the structure. The shingles and "lace runner" (my own non-technical term for it) no longer seem de trop. The entire dormer now seems to be pulled together as a single unit, rather than a mere assemblage of house parts. The dormer looks warm and inviting, evocative of an earlier, more graceful time.

The reason the dormer now looks like an integral part of the house is because of the uniform, contrasting color of the trim. It pulls the dormer together visually and anchors it to the rest of the structure. The anchoring effect is strongest at the top, because the color highlights the fact that the house's roofing material is continued onto the roof of the dormer.

The trim color pulls the dormer together visually by dint of the relationship among the colors. The colors of the side shiplap and the scalloped shingles of the tympanum, as well of that of the sash (the window frames), are complimentary to the trim, a relationship that naturally makes sense to the eye on a physiological level. The fact that this is a physiological observation, requiring no conscious thought, is I believe what makes the transformation seem to have a bit of magic about it: the viewer already knows the color scheme suits the structure well before he even has a chance to ponder why this might be so.

The reasons why the paint scheme makes the scalloped shingles and lace runner relevant to the structure are considerably more complex, but here I'll just hit the high points.

The simple reason why the shingles are made relevant is that they are picked out in a different color from the rest of the dormer. This highlights the fact that they represent a different texture from the rest of the dormer. The texture is visually pleasing in itself, and doubly so because it spices up what would otherwise be a flat, boring front. The shingles provide visual interest, and the lighter body color intensifies that interest.

Similarly, the lace runner breaks up what would otherwise be a flat, featureless casing surrounding the windows, and adds a touch of grace. Yes, it self-evidently provides no function other than decoration, but that is why it is not picked out in a different color. In a much larger house with a great deal of this sort of decoration, it might well be picked out in the first body color, but to do this in a house built on the scale of the Farm House would just be the tarting-up of an already-lovely lady.

I almost forgot to discuss the windows! At first, I thought the practice of painting the sash a different color from the trim quite odd, but it makes perfect sense in a Victorian context. I've already mentioned the eyes angle, which goes to the beauty of form and sentiment. I've also mentioned that drawing attention to them in this manner goes to the beauty of fitness, because a house fit for human habitation must have plenty of light and ventilation.

What I had not previously considered is that the practice also goes to the beauty of utility. Recall that under that precept, the trim color is supposed to show the transfer of the house's load down to the foundation. Windows are self-evidently not a part of that. So it's a triple play for the windows' bearing a different color.

While I'm at it, allow me to present the long-promised Before And After of the north dormer:



I think the comparison here is even more dramatic, because the dormer is much larger and was in far worse condition than the middle dormer. Oh, and you can also see along the left half of the roofline that in the interim (just a few months ago, in fact) we had the damage from the Big Blow of November 30, 2011 repaired. That was when a massive windstorm brought a large branch of the oak tree crashing down upon the roof, damaging the shingles on this dormer and up near the north chimney. Mercifully, the house was otherwise spared.

As I said at the start of this discussion, Victorians believed that a house should present itself with a logic and consistency to its various parts that induce the beholder to view it as an organic whole. The above comparisons show how indispensable a proper paint scheme is in putting that across, and why such a scheme should be considered an inseparable element of a proper Victorian home.

* * *

As nice as the dormers look now, imagine how much prettier they would be with their original bargeboards in place! In case you don't recall what a bargeboard is, here's a picture of the one in the north gable:


The bargeboards in the front dormers were, without a doubt, scaled-down versions of this one. When I'm done painting the house, I hope to be able to convince the Cultural Heritage Commission to let me replace them. I may be biased, but the Farm House's bargeboards are the prettiest and most graceful I've ever seen. They suggest to me a fringe of curls peeking out of a pretty girl's bonnet over her forehead. I imagine that this effect was even more pronounced when the shingles were unpainted.

Before I sign off, let me pull the camera back and show you the effect of the proper paint scheme on the middle dormer in relation to the whole house:


Notice how more firmly attached to the house the middle dormer appears compared to the others. Notice also how the eye associates it with the completed south side. Also, note how nicely the new colors harmonize with the house's surroundings.

I guarantee that when the whole house is painted, the effect will be profoundly mind-blowing.

* * *

Red Wolf also harmonizes with his surrounding environment.
Meanwhile, the Wily Forest Cat and his protégé 
formulate a grand scheme of their own.


5 comments:

  1. Enchanting description of a time gone by!

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a high concept. Can 't wait to see it in all it's glory!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Vividly brings back a bygone era, evoking the loveliness and warmth of it's time.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What a great read. You could write a book!

    ReplyDelete
  5. The great Red Wolf and Wiley Forest Cat(s), what's a squirrel to do???

    ReplyDelete

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