A House of a Different Color
Terri and Richard Reynolds took their Michigan home back to the 1890s
By Lauren Walser | From Preservation | September/October 2010
When Rob Schweitzer saw the photo of a historic house in southeastern Michigan, it took him aback. "I thought, 'What happened?' "
The two-and-a-half-story Shingle Style structure set on a huge lot in Grosse Pointe Farms was a short bike ride from the street where Schweitzer had grown up in Detroit. He remembered it as one of the most eye-catching residences in the neighborhood, distinguished by a spacious wraparound porch and an impressive Lake Superior sandstone rotunda. "And now it was all … taupe," he says, recalling the monotone house in the photograph.
Which was precisely the reason Terri and Richard Reynolds, the home's new owners, reached out to him. Schweitzer runs Historic House Colors, a color consulting business, and he helps homeowners choose historically appropriate colors for residential exteriors. He can take a house bathed in brown—or taupe—and honor its original appearance.
When the Reynoldses closed on their property three years ago, they moved into a building with a storied past. It was built in 1892 by Mason & Rice, the architectural firm of Albert Kahn, whose celebrated work included the Ford Motor Company's plant in Highland Park, Mich., and Detroit’s landmark Fisher Building. (Rumor has it that the Reynoldses' house was one of Kahn’s earliest residential designs.) The house was occupied by several generations of the prominent Sherrard family until the mid-1980s. Jack Kerouac even lived there for a spell.
Tools of the Trade
During restoration, Terri and Richard Reynolds and Rob Schweitzer used several products they recommend without reservation:
Sikkens' Cetol SRD:The Reynoldses applied this exterior, waterproof wood finish to their deck to prevent rotting sikkens.com
84-A Durable Slate Ripper:This hand-forged tool can pull out problematic shingles one at a time and save "an enormous amount of money," Terri says. stortz.com
Sure Klean Fast Acting Stripper: This product helped remove multiple layers of paint, but professionals urge homeowners to follow the instructions carefully and use extreme caution when handling. prosoco.com
Sherwin-Williams paints: Schweitzer praises the brand's historically traceable colors. The Reynoldses used Meadow Trail, Java, Rookwood Red, Rookwood Clay, and Cargo Pants. sherwin-williams.com
By the time the Reynoldses moved in, the stone was deteriorating, the number of paint layers on the exterior had far surpassed double digits, wood was rotting, cornices along the gables were missing or severely damaged, and the front and back porches needed to be replaced.
"We didn't realize the extent of what we were getting into," Terri says. "We thought we could just remove the paint, but it wasn't that easy." That became clear one day when Terri's heel sunk through the floor of the porch.
Working with a team of contractors, carpenters, and stonemasons, the Reynoldses began removing more than 20 layers of paint from the sandstone composing the rotunda and front porch, revealing its natural red-orange hue. Contractors used a variety of paint-removing solutions, given the sheer number and assortment of paints they had to deal with.
With all the paint removed, the Reynoldses and their team of workers were able to gauge the extent of damage to exterior surfaces. The diagnosis was not good. Water trapped between the paint and stone had fostered dramatic deterioration in many areas. It became apparent, Terri says, that the paint was actually holding much of the stone together. To save the sandstone blocks, Dan and Bruce Allan of Capital Concrete Contractors in Eastpointe, Mich., tuck-pointed the entire house, including the rotunda, porch, and garden wall, as well as two chimneys. They filled joints with limestone mortar artfully tinted to match the original sandstone and used more than seven gallons of hydraulic cement to replace damaged portions of the stone.
Some elements of the house proved beyond repair, but Joe Amini of Complete Restoration Carpentry in Grosse Pointe was able to produce exact replicas. He re-created shingles and exterior window sills as well as cornices around the gables. Because the original steps in front of the house were beyond hope, a stonemason crafted new steps out of limestone.
Once the body of the house was stabilized, the Reynoldses were eager to start painting. "We just didn't want to make a mistake," Terri says.
Rob Schweitzer was thrilled to work on a familiar structure, and he found the Reynoldses enthusiastic collaborators. "It's really easy when people care about the house and its history," he says. He proposed color schemes common in the 1890s, though the house, he says, is transitional: "It's a Shingle Style, late Victorian, Colonial Revival house, but it also is a little Queen Anne with Romanesque features." His main goal was to enhance the abundant architectural details—especially the sandstone.
"I wanted to highlight details through color," he says, "and let the sandstone stand out, but still tie it back to the whole building."
Schweitzer gave the Reynoldses four possible body colors, and instructed them to paint large pieces of plywood and lay them next to the house. ("Paint chips are useless," he warns.) Then he told them to drive by the house at different times of day to see how they felt about the colors in varying light conditions. Terri and Richard settled on Sherwin-Williams' Meadow Trail. Schweitzer then helped them decide on historically and aesthetically appropriate accent colors, choosing the best shades for the gables, trim, and window sashes.
When the final color decisions were made, Schweitzer laid out a color map for the painters—a very important step in the process, he says. His hand-colored prints of the house let the painters see exactly where to apply each color, reducing the possibility of error and allowing the Reynoldses to get accurate price quotes for their project.
Ultimately, Schweitzer thought his clients made the ideal color decisions. "The house fits in now, but it would have fit in the 1890s, too," he says.
With the last coat of paint drying, the stone and the wood repaired, the Reynoldses waited to hear what neighbors would say. "Rick and I love color," Terri says. "But there aren't too many multicolored houses in the community."
Luckily, the reviews were glowing. "The community has not stopped commenting on how lovely it is," Terri says. Many residents were pleasantly surprised to discover intricate details on the house that had been lost under the previous monotone shroud.
Terri recounts the time an elderly gentleman stood in their driveway, looking up at their house. When Terri approached, he said, "They would have loved what you've done with it."
There was no higher praise for Terri and Richard Reynolds. "We are only stewards of the house," Terri says. "We believe we have to leave it better than we found it. It's our obligation."
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