In a little-used, top-floor room of the circa-1808 Nathaniel Russell House on lower Meeting Street, the museum director opened the interior shutters of the tall windows on the west-facing wall.
Light streamed in through the sparkle of dust hanging in the air. And there it was, high on the wall: Alicia’s Bedchamber. This patch of wall—a hue of turquoise above the window and a faded strip painted to look like crown molding—is something of a holy grail of Charleston’s historic paint colors. Valerie Perry, who manages the house museum, tells the story: when Hurricane Hugo landed in Charleston in 1989 and wreaked havoc and tore away rooftops, the swath of painted plaster was revealed. It was a blue-green revelation that led historians to wonder what other shades may be hidden throughout the house, under the layers of nineteenth-and twentieth-century paints and papers. Frank S. Welsh, an experienced paint analyst, was brought in, and careful archaeological techniques were used—scraping with dental tools, for example—to uncover colors not seen for a century or two. Then from 1996 to the mid-2000s, paint analyst and conservator Susan L. Buck completed a more extensive in-depth study of Charleston paint colors, particularly at the circa-1818 Aiken-Rhett House on Elizabeth Street, another museum house of the Historic Charleston Foundation.
This work inspired a palette of Charleston paint colors, developed with the Historic Charleston Foundation, and includes Alicia’s Bedchamber, named for one of Nathaniel Russell’s daughters. The once-hidden hue can now be seen and painted on Charleston walls again, along with other shades with similar lore that are part of the city-named collection. The colors are everywhere—so organic to our lives, we may not always notice. As we walk Charleston’s streets, lean on porch columns at cocktail parties, or slide our chairs up to dinner tables in friends’ homes, we’re often surrounded by shades with history and significance. On exteriors and interiors, there are walls the green of loquat trees, the gray-brown of wet cobblestones, the terra-cotta of local bricks, the chalky-white of oyster shells.
For a primer on Charleston color, start at the well-restored and furnished Nathaniel Russell House. “Everyone who visits notes it for the free-flowing staircase, but I think of the paint,” says Perry, pointing out not just the walls, but also the creamy white paint on the iron balcony rails and the burled wood grain painted on the tall front doors. The nineteenth-century residents and guests were apparently dazzled by color, with moods and hues changing from room to room. Many of the home’s original colors found during the paint analysis have been returned. On the walls that rise around the famed staircase is a buttercup shade of Russell’s Gold. There’s a peachy-pink in the curved-wall drawing room. (In the collection, that paint color is, in fact, named Drawing Room.) And there’s a deep wine accent color in the cornice in the withdrawing room with the moniker Withdrawing Room Red. The most striking color in the house, though, is Verditer Blue, a bright azure painted on softly overlapping rectangles of wallpaper. Almost everywhere you turn, there is a richness of color. Bold shades on the walls are often echoed in the classic period paintings and portraits that adorn them.
By many accounts, the vibrant colors were a revelation when the paint was uncovered and documented.
Today the use of the historic colors is championed anew by Charlestonians like Richard Marks, an architectural conservator, and architect Glenn Keyes, who worked on the restoration of Kiawah’s eighteenth-century Vanderhorst Mansion in the 1990s. Keyes said, “We knew that such colors were used in England in the nineteenth century, but for some reason, we thought they didn’t transfer here … it was a nice surprise.”
At his historic preservation-oriented firm, Keyes says he often consults the palette. “It adds a layer of authenticity to use these nineteenth-century colors, particularly with houses of the same vintage.” One of the colors he uses often is the Charleston White for its “pleasing depth … it’s not so bright white.” Keyes also has a penchant for the buttery Stucco Creamtone and for the darker taupe of Samuel O’Hara Frieze, another documented color from the Nathaniel Russell House. O’Hara was a Charleston painter and advertised in 1808 that examples of his work could be seen at Mr. Russell’s “new building in Meeting Street.”
“A wealthy landowner could express his wealth by colors,” says Furman Cole, Charlestonian and longtime co-owner of Brewer’s Paint Center. There was an artisan quality to painting, well into the twentieth century, with painters mixing the pigments and tints into lime washes just before painting. Since Charleston single houses were generally oriented with windows facing either east or west, Cole says paint colors were often chosen for the daylight it would receive when it was used most. He still sees dining rooms in darker and richer colors (where candles or lights would typically be lit), and drawing room walls in middle-range colors. — S.M.L.