Nantucket's Historic Colors: Where'd You Get that Blue?
A few weeks ago, I decided to find out how Nantucket’s Historic Commission had created their twelve commandments of exterior paint colors. My mission first took hold when I replaced my front screen door and decided that it was time to dress my door more formally. So I did what we all do; I went to The Marine Home Center and spent the better part of a morning vacillating between Hussey Green and Gardner Green, because (as we all know) paint color choices always involve a crisis of identity, however slight the variables: Was I tough enough to stand up to Hussey Green turned into that morning’s ontological conundrum. I finally concluded that I was. But then I moved to a fateful, deeper question: What was the origin of my choice?
Not who had determined it. I knew that it was the Historic District Commission. But on what had they based their reds, grays, blues, greens, lone yellow and their over-my-dead-body exclusion of orange, purple, pink and brown? Were there historic antecedents on the island for every color on that chart? Had there been a meeting of Commissioners in which there had been a strong lobby for “cobblestone” while a shade of gray we’ll call “rubble” had a solitary hold-out who kept waving pictures of drably painted houses and shouting “Rubble or die!”
Hoping to uncover a tale of conspiracy and intrigue as thrilling as The DaVinci Code, I instead discovered that, as in most orthodoxies, there has been a subtle creep, a bending and extending that seems to have escaped the notice of even the most doctrinaire HDC members, witness the fact that the talismanic, “Building with Nantucket in Mind” contains TEN not TWELVE color commandments. How did one Gray Blue become three: Folger Blue, Nantucket Blue and Newport Blue? When and why did Barn Red separate into Tristram Red and Nantucket Red and how had they managed to knock out black?
My first attempt to uncover the story of historic colors was two pronged: I called Mark Voigt, Chair of the Historic District Commission and I went to the NHA to look at their database of 19th century paintings.
Mark is too new to the HDC to have been around for the color decision but he conceded that the color slate could only be approximate largely because in the 18th and 19th centuries, painters mixed their own paint ingredients. Every mix, and thus every house, was slightly different. There were recipes (Hezekiah Reynolds wrote the earliest known American guide to formulas published in 1812) but even when following a recipe, some painters mixed pigments more thoroughly than others, or spread paint more thickly and the constitution of their ingredients could vary.
“But this much we do know,” Mark assured me, unfortunately over the phone so I was unable to see if he had raised an index finger to make the point, “colors did not have the brilliance you see today because titanium, the ingredient that makes our white so white, wasn’t available in early Nantucket.” It followed that other colors were duller because they had the titanium deficient white as their base.
Still chemistry was not the full explanation for Nantucket’s early color palette of earth tones. The idea that domestic architecture should blend with landscape was a well-documented aesthetic of pre-Victorian England and New England. Sir Joshua Reynolds went so far as to advise that “If you would fix upon the best color for your house, turn up a stone or pluck up a handful of grass by the roots, and see what is the color of the soil where the house is to stand and let that be your choice.”
David Barham, former Chair of the HDC, agreed that color wasn’t considered an accent, or really an adornment feature until the Victorian period. In fact, an 1856 publication by A. J. Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses, includes an esoterically famous diatribe against the use of white for house exteriors because it is “too glaring and conspicuous”, “painful to the eye” in sunlight and “mars the effect of rural landscape” where pure white is never found. For back up he quotes Wordsworth who wrote that the only thing worse than white is the “flaring yellow” that some people are using to avoid white (and the anti-white censorious mob, I gather). Downing also refers to Price’s remark in one of his Essays on the Beautiful and Picturesque that “white teeth give a silly expression to the countenance.” I am now feeling very sheepish about my house’s white trim.
Nineteenth century paintings of Nantucket, at least the ones reproduced in the NHA library, include some wonderful landscapes dappled with island houses. These paintings certainly confirm that earth tones predominated on trim and doors, specifically grays and beiges, and now and then a green or red. What is noticeably lacking is the color blue, though the 19th century painter James Walter Folger liked to tint his shadows with blue and a blued shadow sometimes slides across his doors. Not, I think, qualifying as a certifiable historic precedent.
Mark Voigt recommended that I speak with John McLaughlin whose tenure on the committee goes back more than 40 years. Any reason to speak with John McLaughlin is a good one, I’d been told, and he is generally available at two ends of the day, at dawn in the Wharf Rats Club and at dusk on the bench at the top of Main. My luck he suggested 6:30 am at the Wharf Rats Club. We moved to Fog Island Café.
One of the first things John asked me was how many pink houses there are on the island. I began, “Well there was one on Polpis Harbor…” His eyes brightened; I’d passed the test. So he finished it himself, only the one on Milk Street remains.
Incredible as it may seem, the HDC’s color slate even predates John. It began in 1955 when the HDC had jurisdiction only over Nantucket Town and Sconset. It remained constant through printing after printing of Building With Nantucket in Mind. John offered to retrieve from his car a first edition Building with Nantucket in Mind. His car is what I imagine most NYC rent-controlled Village apartments to be like—the accumulation of 50 years of treasures layered like geological strata. He opened the relic to the house color page and suggested I take photos of it, which I did in spite of the fact that the page has survived every reprinting. I raised the question of the marked proliferation of blues on the Marine Home Center chart. We’d already shaken our heads a few times over the current decline (read as “corruption”) in rule following but in this case John just shrugged. “The blues came from gray…you know, light gray …”
After breakfast John offered to give me a ride up Orange Street to where a brightly painted clapboard house had become a road hazard. Apparently the owners had painted the front a brilliant white and, under certain light conditions it was so “painful to the eye” (as A.J. Downing had warned) that it was blinding. Authorities prevailed and the clapboard is now a pale yellow. Safely over the Orange Street summit we passed a yellow clapboard front whose ochre hue required proof of authenticity, not being the pale yellow of the chart. When John finally arrived at my own address he said, “Oh I remember this house. That wall”, he said, pointing to the stone wall the previous owners had constructed, “caused a lot of anger.” It occurred to me that John could make a little pocket money doing Nantucket tours of HDC battles.
The next day I decided to consult the other party involved in controlling Nantucket’s color palette, The Marine Home Center. In a previous interview, Chick Tennant had described to me the store’s collaboration with the HDC on insuring that they provide what HDC requires in everything from fencing to hardware to…paint colors. So my question to Chick was, “When your store created your own chart of colors ‘in keeping with colors approved by the Historic District Commission’ (I’m quoting the chart), how did that come about? Whom did you meet with?”
“Well I remember we had someone from advertising involved in coming up with the names of paint colors,” Chick began, “As far as HDC rep? John McLaughlin. Pretty sure. Yep.”
Any constitutional scholar will tell you that it’s the spirit of the law you’re going after and it could be argued that, on a small island surrounded (by definition) by water, on an island so level that sky inevitably becomes scenery, blue should be considered an earth tone, if by earth we are referring to a planet not dirt. And here we mean not just the blue gray “Folger Blue” but the sea-on-a-clear-day “Newport Blue” and the sea-on-a-stormy-day “Nantucket Blue”. But then you have to ask yourself, what about those Nantucket sunsets, skies ablaze with purple, orange and pink, lighting up Washing Pond like a trollop in a looking glass. Ask any Nantucket sailor, once you leave earth for sea and sky, all hell breaks loose.