DOT’S BEAT: Why all the Fuss about House Color?

By Dot Helling

I live on East State Street just outside Montpelier’s Historic District. When I bought my house 25 years ago, I negotiated my way through multiple steps to approve the updates and changes to my 1800s house, including approval of a non-traditional paint color: plum (some call it the “purple house”). At that time, the late Margot George sat on the Design Review Committee and was a stickler for historic preservation, whether or not your house was inside the historic district.

My neighbors, Paul and Sean, recently painted their residence “endless sea blue,” and adopted my plum house color for their property at the end of Miles Court. In August, they painted the Myles Court Barbershop lime green with a periwinkle trim. It had been a conservative gray, a traditional color of many Montpelier houses, along with white, Victorian blue, and brown. Paul and Sean thought they should “spice things up,” and that “too many houses in Montpelier are the same color.” I agree. What they’ve done added a touch of San Francisco to the neighborhood. Our immediate neighborhood is becoming a mix of eclectic and visually fun colors.

However, others vociferously disagree. One person with a business across the street loudly derided the bright green color choice, questioning “how on earth” they could have gotten it through design review. Well, I checked on how, and also took on a general inquiry as to how residents do get their colors approved.

A bright yellow house on Winter Street received considerable attention several years ago, as has a Pepto-Bismol pink house on River Street, where the Granite Street Bridge tees in. There is a house on Elm with multi-colored vertical geometrics (called the “undecided house” by some), a gorgeous multi-colored trim, flesh-based Victorian at 26 Loomis, the “rainbow house” on Upper Main, houses with gold trim on St. Paul and Barre streets, and more. The list of creative color schemes keeps growing. So much for the traditional, muted colors of earthy, natural pigments. Bring on the bold polychrome paint schemes, but please avoid what’s been termed as an “amalgam of cotton candy colors,” as often seen at northern seashore communities.

What, if any, restrictions are there on the color choice of house paint in our downtown? No longer are the regulations or permitting authorities as restrictive as they once were. Our zoning regulations adopted on January 3, 2018, merely state that “structures should create an attractive and interesting exterior form through variation in surface, colors, textures and materials….”

Our Design Review Committee standards on the city website reference the Montpelier Cityscape Workbook, dated January 30, 1976, which states: “A color scheme should be neighborly as well as [a]esthetically effective on the individual building so that both the building and the environment of the street-scape benefit.” It recites that the basic premise of historic colors is to “avoid all those colors which nature avoids.” The Design Review brochure on “exteriors” says to avoid synthetic materials as a “green” strategy, yet keep in line with the underlying goal of preserving a building’s historic character. Past Design Review members have interpreted that goal to include the keeping of a building’s original color even if the existing color was contrary to the taste of the owner. Luckily, that approach has softened as evidenced by what’s taken place in my neighborhood.

What then is the protocol within neighborhoods for choosing a house color? I’ve experienced neighborly consideration of the following factors: what other house colors exist in near proximity, asking a homeowner if they would mind if their unique color was “borrowed,” and including neighbors in the discussion and choice of color.

What happens if you just “go bust” and do your own thing, ignoring historic trends and the preferences of neighbors and other residents? First, you cannot ignore historic trends if Design Review takes a position on the color of your house—you need the permit. Second, if you have thin skin, you may not want to ignore the neighbor who hates your color. Third, and most important, is the fact that we want to enhance the unique character of Montpelier and particularly the downtown. Therefore, thinking through what you do with your building is important in order to be community-minded and supportive of attractive development.

Last, how do your choices impact on your home’s improvement and the values of your surrounding neighborhoods? If buyers like it, they will come. Simple as that. In addition to the color, it’s important to stay on top of painting your building, before it peels, before it gets dingy, before the clapboards rot. Keeping your building well-painted is cheaper in the long run and better for the building and the preservation of its value. The key is not to fall behind on maintenance inside or out. That said, this issue of The Bridge is themed “home improvement.” We hope it gives you some sound and helpful ideas.

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