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Villa Montezuma Provides Lessons in Color

By Bruce D. Coons

Recently I had the great pleasure to serve as a consultant to Architect Milford Wayne Donaldson, under Project Architect and SOHO board member David Marshall in the process of completing the Villa Montezuma Treatment Plan.

We thought the process followed in this effort would be of interest as a mini workshop on historic color.

To begin with, the effort was complicated by the fact that the Villa had gone through paint removal several times in the past, down to bare wood, leaving only the smallest fragments of the original pigment and in many instances, none at all.

The available evidence was reviewed, which included paint scrapings, historic photos, books on Victorian color schemes, a previous report by Will Chandler, my own investigations, conversations with people who have worked on the building over the past 30 years, and giving the most weight to the paint analysis by Historic Paint and Architectural Services. A good picture of the original colors began to emerge.

I then reviewed the data against common practice of the time, such as: suggested color schemes for Queen Anne Houses, color affinity charts, and another Queen Anne structure built by the same architects also in 1887. The combination of this material presented a strong case for the most accurate color scheme. There may have been additional colors not yet been found, but all major colors have been identified and placed in appropriate locations. Where not attainable colors were placed according to common practice of the time.

Villa Montezuma

With this basic 1887 color scheme identified, we now have a true and accurate representation of the house as built when Jesse Shepard resided there.

The majority of homes constructed during this period had several basic elements. These were the body, window sash and trim color. Additionally, most had a complementary roof and foundation color. As the architecture increased in complexity, more colors were added as the structure allowed according to the architects and owner's taste. Large Queen Anne's were often among the most highly decorated homes of the 1880s, employing many harmonizing colors.

Identification of the window sash was relatively simple as we have a good record of the succession of paint layers, paint analysis, scrapings, common practice, and visual inspection all had a high degree of correlation. The color found was a deep red, the trim an olive/moss green.

The body is made up of Old Gold on the horizontal and vertical siding and the second color, a medium Terra Cotta, found on the upper shingled portions of the body and behind the moldings and between original shingles. These colors are all consistent with color affiliation charts of the period. There are many period references to this combination of colors recommended for this type of building.

No evidence of the original basement color was found. It appears to be very light in color in the original photos and is assumed to be natural unpainted mortar or painted a very Light Grey. It was quite common in San Diego during this period to leave the stucco coat unpainted and there were numerous examples of this practice. This may have been intended to compliment the natural plaster and inset stone panels located in the upper gable ends of the building.

The dark red roof was selected again using historic photos. Dark Red was the most common roof color for a building using the other colors identified. There were no original roofing shingles present to investigate.

The half-timbering color in the upper gable ends was found to be clear varnished redwood. Historic photos confirm our determinations. consistent with this data..

The plaster and rock panels appear to be a very Light Grey unpainted plaster with natural-colored rocks inserted. This treatment is common where these plaster panels were used.

The pale moss green ridge cresting and metal ornamentation was chosen by reviewing the historic photos for color value as well as the overall color scheme combined with recommended practice of the time. These elements were rarely painted black and often simulated natural materials, such as: weathered copper.

The porch ceiling was painted the traditional Sky Blue, which was found still adhering to the ceiling by scraping. This was the most common color for porch ceilings regardless of the paint scheme for the rest of the house as was Gray the most common color for the porch floors.

The balance of the placement of colors was determined by following recommended practice of the period. Additional accent colors may have been used but they have not been found or clearly indicated as of this date.

These findings present a historic color scheme that is very close to how Shepard's Villa Montezuma appeared in 1887. These colors may seem unusual by contemporary standards, but Jesse's paint scheme was right in line with the best recommended practice for the romantic Queen Anne Revival Architecture of the time.

The Villa should be able to be seen in all her Colorful Victorian Splendor by late spring. Stop by and watch the progress. The Villa Montezuma is located at 1925 K Street in Historic Sherman Heights. The Villa will be open during the work on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4:30pm. Admission is $5 for adults. SDHS members free.

Editor's Note - As a historic design and color specialist, Bruce has said "Bringing the colors together for the Villa was a great thrill for me. For the kind of work I do the Villa Montezuma was the ultimate project, and one near to my heart, having wanted to see it in its original state for thirty years."

2001 - Volume 32, Issue 1

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