To paint or not to paint original woodwork is a perennial question for homeowners, architects and designers who live in and renovate old homes. Often, the answer depends on the owner’s preference, the style and era of the house, and the quality and condition of the wood.
Fashions come and go (such as the now-fading craze for covering everything in sight with white paint). Woodwork painted in surprising colors, such as navy blue or hot pink, is having a moment. More-expected neutrals, such as cream or gray, vie in popularity with woodwork au naturel in Brooklyn brownstones and row houses.
Interior designer Louisa Roeder grappled with whether to paint the well-preserved mahogany woodwork in her own 1870s Prospect Heights brownstone when she renovated in 2014.
“I wanted to create a relatively modern kitchen, and to do that I wanted to have a lot of white,” Roeder said. “I was reluctant about painting the wood molding because they were in such good condition, but once I saw how good the kitchen looked, I decided to paint the wood molding on the rest of the parlor floor and hallway.”
The white woodwork had the biggest impact of all her design decisions, Roeder said.
“It really modernized it,” she said. “It looked a little too Victorian before. It’s a big gamble because once you do it you can’t go back.”
Interior designer Tamara Eaton said her decision to paint or not to paint woodwork depends largely on the quality of the craftsmanship. In one brownstone bursting with elaborate mahogany woodwork, for example, she took great care to preserve the intricate detail and mother-of-pearl inlays. In another brownstone, where the woodwork was a lower grade, she painted the entire parlor level — walls and woodwork — a dark gray.
“Many strict preservationists consider painting woodwork sacrilegious. However, we try to be conscious about when to preserve a unique or high-quality townhouse and when we can be more liberal with our approach because of the medium-caliber craftsmanship that was originally put forth by the developer or builder,” Eaton said.
“In purchasing a townhouse, you have adopted a great part of history that is to be celebrated, but also lived in,” she said. “There is a constant push and pull with how to reinterpret and modernize a home that was built over 100 years ago.”
Of course, many preservationists draw the line at painting original woodwork that was not meant to be painted originally, saying it destroys the character of the home.
“The woodwork was not meant to be painted,” said Andrew Dolkart, noted author, Columbia University professor, and former director of the school’s Historic Preservation program. “If they wanted it to be painted, they would have used plaster. Why spend money on expensive wood to paint it?”
Up until about the 1870s, woodwork was typically painted, often faux grained.
In the late Victorian era, the woodwork on the main levels of a brownstone was a selling point, and a symbol of good taste and wealth. Pine and poplar were used in secondary spaces like basements and third floor bedrooms, and were more often meant to be painted, Dolkart said.
In the early 20th century, Colonial Revival ushered in a fashion for white-painted woodwork, while Arts & Crafts interiors featured natural oak.
Starting in the 20th century, new owners of brownstones painted woodwork white to make row house interiors brighter. But with the brownstoning movement in the later part of the century, owners began to strip away the old paint and rediscover the beauty of the original woodwork, he said.
“Why buy an old house if you’re going to destroy what makes an old house wonderful?” Dolkart said. “As house prices have gone up and wealth has increased, people are ripping out historic interiors. To me, what’s the point? Go move to the suburbs if you don’t appreciate the artistry that went into these houses.”
Architect Jeff Sherman of Delson or Sherman has another perspective. He prefers to paint the woodwork most of the time. Old moldings often have to be patched and replicated, and often homeowners strip down painted woodwork to discover that it’s an inferior species like poplar, he said.
“I totally recognize there is this pervasive idea about what a crime it is to paint over all this beautiful wood,” Sherman said. “But I think the look of the house with painted molding can be really beautiful and I think it’s much easier to tie together the look of the house when you paint that wood.”
Although most of his clients prefer to painstakingly strip and restore original woodwork, Sherman said he usually recommends painting woodwork a shade of white or pale gray.
“I think it really lightens up these spaces,” he said. “Some of these rooms have a lot of woodwork and you can wind up with a very dark room. But I think there’s something clean and authentic about painting these rooms.”
Interior designer Fawn Galli, who has a fondness for color, sometimes paints the woodwork and walls the same color to make a space look modern, or chooses contrasting colors like yellow and green. She painted the newel post in her own Carroll Gardens brownstone hot pink, a favorite color.
“It’s definitely an opportunity to add color and make it fun and even shocking,” Galli said. “The issue with townhouses is that they tend to be dark, but if it’s a beautiful wood I would probably leave it and paint the wall an icy gray.”
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