Techniques > Systems > Finishes > NPS Preservation Brief 28 Painting Historic Interiors >

Choosing a Treatment




Most projects involve repainting. It is the historic appearance of the interior and the visual impression that will be created by new paint treatments that must be considered before choosing a particular course of action. The type and colors of paint obviously depend on the type of building and the use and interpretation of its interior spaces. A consistent approach is best.


When the treatment goal is preservation, a building's existing historic features and finishes are maintained and repaired, saving as much of the historic paint as possible. Sometimes, cleaning and washing of painted surfaces is all that is needed. Or a coating may be applied to protect important examples of history or art.

If repainting is required, the new paint is matched to existing paint colors using the safer, modern formulations. Recreating earlier surface colors and treatments is not an objective.


In a typical rehabilitation, more latitude exists in choosing both the kind of new paint as well as color because the goal is the efficient reuse of interior spaces. Decisions about new paint often weigh factors such as economy and durability — use of a high-quality standard paint from a local or national company and application by a qualified contractor.

Color choices may be based on paint research reports prepared for interior rooms of comparable date and style. More often, though, current color values and taste are taken into account. Again, the safer paint formulations are used.

Interiors of institutional buildings, such as university buildings, city halls, libraries, and churches often contain rich decorative detailing. During rehabilitation, careful choices should be made to retain or restore selected portions of the decorative work as well as match some of the earlier colors to evoke the historic sense of time and place. At the least, it is important to use period-typical paint color and paint placement.


In a restoration project, the goal is to depict the property as it appeared during its period of greatest significance. This may or may not be the time of its original construction. For example, if a building dated from 1900 but historians deemed its significance to be the 1920s, the appropriate paint color match would be the 1920s layer, not the original 1900 layer.

Based on historical research, on-site collection of paint samples, and laboratory analysis, surface colors and treatments can be recreated to reflect the property at a particular period of time. It should be noted that scholarly findings may yield a color scheme that is not suited to the taste of the contemporary owner, but is nonetheless historically accurate. In restoration, personal taste in color is not at issue; the evidence should be strictly followed.

In the restoration process, colors are custom-matched by professionals to give an accurate representation. If an artist or artisan can be found, the historically replicated paint may be applied using techniques appropriate to the period of the restoration.

Although custom paint manufacture is seldom undertaken, color and glazing are capable of being customized. In some projects, paint may be custom-made using linseed oil and, if building code variances allow it, white lead. [This is not advised.] For example, the repainting of a number of rooms at Mount Vernon demonstrates that it is possible to replicate historic paints and applications in all aspects; however, as noted, replication of historic paint formulation is not practical for the majority of projects.

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