Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Contemplating Color

Plans for the Short Street side of the Armory came before the Historic Preservation Commission on Friday. It will be remembered that once upon a time there was a plan to construct a "medical wing" on that side of the building, but the plan was abandoned more than a year ago.

Now the intention is to restore the west facade of the building more or less to the way it was before the garage, now demolished, was added in 1957.

According to Charles Vieni, who was presenting the proposal on behalf of the Galvan Foundation, the bottom row of twelve windows, which are now bricked up, were never actually windows. Rather they were recessed faux windows with bars over them. These window recesses and the bars will be restored. In the next row of eight window openings, the windows will be replaced by metal louvers to ventilate the mechanicals for the library which will be located there. At the top, four window openings will be added that were never there before, and original windows from elsewhere in the building, possibly from the row below, will be installed in those four new openings.

HPC chair Rick Rector asked about the color of the louvers and was told they would be Wedgwood blue, which raised a few eyebrows. Vieni explained that the interior decorator had chosen the color. When Rector suggested that the application be approved on the condition that the colors for the louvers and the bars on the faux windows be submitted and approved by the HPC, city attorney Carl Whitbeck, counsel to the HPC, commented, "I thought you didn't concern yourselves with color." Rector explained that while the HPC does not review the color of paint used in historic districts, it does concern itself with the color of materials used (Chapter 169-5 B (3) of the city code), the rationale being that paint does not permanently and irrevocably alter the character of a building or of a neighborhood, whereas the color of materials used, either in new construction or in alterations to existing structures, has a far more lasting effect.

At the end of the meeting, Rick Scalera, Fifth Ward supervisor and special adviser to the Galvan Foundation, who comes to HPC meetings whenever a Galvan project is being presented and asks at least one question intended, it seems, not so much to learn the answer as to catch the HPC in some inconsistency or arbitrary and capacious decision making, posed this question: "If you're doing a building over and replacing shingles with Hardiplank, does color have to be approved?" The answer was yes, but the point Scalera wanted to make was that someone could install the Hardiplank in the color approved by the HPC and then paint it some other color. Of course, he made it sound as if the HPC approved the wholesale replacement of original clapboard with Hardiplank all the time when it fact it has happened only once, in the case of 134 and 136 Warren Street.

Coincidentally, the discussion of color at the HPC meeting was followed immediately after by an inquiry to Gossips about paint colors in historic districts. These two incidents inspired the following musings about the history of paint color in historic districts in Hudson.

Back in the day, when the City of Hudson was demolishing so much of its architectural fabric, despite efforts at the state level to save it, a relatively tiny bit of Hudson--the north side of the first block of Warren Street and both sides of the 100 block of Warren Street--were deemed significant enough to be preserved. The buildings on these blocks, along a few buildings on east side of South Front Street, were part of a fairly innovative (for the time), federally funded facade easement program. As part of this preservation effort, paint analysis was done to determine the original colors of paint on each building in the program. Those original colors were the colors the buildings were painted during the facade restoration and the colors the buildings were to remain. 

Some years ago, I discovered, in the History Room of the library, a copy of the paint analysis report, with lots of tiny little square paint chips, many of which had come unglued, that showed the Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams equivalents of the original colors. There were, as I recall, lots of whites and grays and shades of brown.

There also seems to have been a palette of acceptable colors for what were then considered the commercial blocks of Warren Street: the 500 block and the 600 block. Jennifer Arenskjold recalls that, in 1985, when she painted the door of her shop at 612 Warren Street red, she was told by Linda Davidson, then the executive director of the Hudson Development Corporation, that the red was too bright, and the door to be repainted dark red.

It is alleged that into the the mid-1990s, the code enforcement officer at the time, Frank March, was still enforcing the paint color restrictions. Unfortunately, he seemed not to be as zealous about the spirit of the facade easement program, and during those years one building in the 100 block of Warren Street acquired vinyl siding and another suffered some pretty inappropriate facade alterations, including changes in fenestration.

In the early 2000s, when the restrictions of the facade easement program seemed to have been forgotten and the historic preservation ordinance had not yet been enacted, the clapboard on 1 Warren Street was replaced with terracotta orange Hardiplank, along with other changes.

When people started crafting Hudson's preservation ordinance in 2002, they were mindful of the classic fear people have of historic designation: that someone will tell them what color they can or cannot paint their house. For this reason, repainting a wooden structure or a masonry structure that was currently painted were excluded from the alterations that required a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission. As it was understood in 2002, the goal of the preservation ordinance was not to turn Hudson into a living museum but to protect the historic fabric and prevent alterations that would destroy the authenticity of the city's architecture and irreversibly alter the character of buildings and neighborhoods. Paint, it was believed, although capable of altering the character of a building and indeed of an entire block, was neither a permanent change nor an irreversible one.

Whenever the issue of paint color comes up in an HPC meeting, one wonders if it might be time for the City's official position on paint color to be revisited. The problem is that unless the HPC does paint analyses and subjects property owners to the tyranny of having to keep their houses painted the same colors they were painted when they were new, or hires someone to create a different palette of acceptable colors for each different style and period of architecture, based on what colors existed in paint during that period, making judgments about what is appropriate for any given house can seem more a matter of taste than anything else.

Besides, if the choice of paint color were subject to review and approval, Hudson might not have some of its more adventurous color choices and it very likely would not be experiencing the current trend of painting houses and commercial buildings dark gray and black.


  1. Orange and black are not appropriate colours for houses. It is a pity that HPC does not have the power to veto inappropriate colours and spare us they eyesores that are appearing everywhere.

  2. Interesting article, Carole. I think it would be hard to limit the colors to the originals and frankly I think that the streetscape is pretty interesting with the new colors. I feel that Nantucket for instance, whereas beautiful in one way is a bit monotonous. I wouldn't want to be on the HPC if colors had to be decided too.