The Colors of Clover Forest

"Are those historical colors?" wonders the visitor gazing upon the Clover Forest Manor Home's happy yellow clapboard and equally ebullient green shutters. Well, Mr. Einstein might have responded, "It depends on the moment in time."

What else if not the white of the Magnolia's blossom and the dark green of its leaves epitomizes the historical "Southern home"? We are all accustomed to the ubiquitous color scheme.

And, true to form, if you traveled to the historical Colonial American Country Estate in 1978, the color scheme of the Magnolia tree is exactly what you would have found. Even the beautiful brick work was painted white, probably in the late 1940s, as an attempt to keep moisture out. In fact, the Clover Forest Manor Home was likely always white with green trim, all the way back to Reconstruction.

But why white and green? That color scheme was born from the ashes of the Civil War. Whitewash, made from slaked lime, with any variety of additives from eggs to milk, was affordable and great at covering up fire-blackened walls. As for the green, the credit for that color—as far as we know—belongs to Charleston, South Carolina. Having been provided with large quantities of cheap black Yankee paint for Reconstruction, resourceful Charlestonians brightened it with hints of yellow and blue, thus creating the famous Charleston Green that swept the South.

Another color with a Charleston pedigree is the sky blue ceilings of porches. In South Carolina, they say it helps keep away the restless spirits of the dead known as “haints.” In Virginia, more prosaically, we believe it helps keep wasps from nesting on the ceiling. And, while sadly there would have been many “haints” after the Civil War, the tradition of a blue porch ceiling pre-dates that conflict.

Of course, credit for the earliest historical paint research here in Virginia goes to Colonial Williamsburg. Back in the 1920s, preservationists carefully scraped back layer upon layer of paint which revealed a palette of faded grays, off greens, muted reds and browns. This dull array became the "accepted" record of historical paint colors for decades.

That is, until the early 1980s when researchers at Gunston Hall, home of Virginian George Mason of the Bill of Rights fame, thought to make a chemical analysis of those same paints and discovered—to the surprise of many—that the original palette was not dull at all! Instead, it had been the effect of time on certain of the paint ingredients that had dulled and modified the colors so profoundly.

It was at this same time—the early 1980s—that Clover Forest began its grand restoration under the stewardship of J. A. Volcker. Mr. Volcker, already well-versed in European historical preservation, performed substantial due diligence that included researching and visiting all historic homes open to the public in Virginia and beyond.

Mr. Volcker’s wife, M. E. Volcker, whose formal training had been in applied arts, was familiar with the study of historical colors in Europe. So when the startling results began to emerge from the chemical analysis performed on paints at Gunston Hall—sending shockwaves through and upsetting the widely-held notions of historical color correctness in Virginia—the Volckers felt the researchers at Gunston Hall were right on target.

Indeed, today all Colonial American historic places have embraced the notion that bright paints were not only fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were also a status symbol. Colonial Williamsburg even offers an official line of commercially-available paints with punched-up colors like the popular Prussian blue seen here. And the array of hues in the antebellum would only have been limited by the technological thresholds of the age. For example, Prussian blue did prove quick to fade in the elements and was thus ultimately limited to interiors (and porch ceilings).

Gunston Hall resurrected a shade of blue that greatly appealed to Mr. Volcker during his 1980s-era restoration of the Clover Forest Manor Home, and so the color found its way into the restored main hallway (pictured) and parlor.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, another source of inspiration for Clover Forest's restoration, has a bright yellow dining room. Clover Forest's formal dining room, after its restoration, is shown here.

Of course, as with any restoration, personal taste does come into play; and Mr. Volcker, partially color blind, heavily favored blues and yellows. Indeed his wife, as a token of her love for him, adopted a wardrobe in which blues and yellows dominated.

There is one color, however, featured at a Founding Father's home that was judged just too bold to be integrated into Clover Forest's restoration. In fact, you will only see this stunning green in one place: the dining room at George Washington's Mount Vernon. This color, more than any other, demonstrates the absolute love of color in the 18th century and at the turn of the 19th century among people in the South and in Virginia particularly.

For the exterior phase of Clover Forest's restoration, Mr. Volcker directed the brick be cleaned of its white paint and the bricks repointed. And in lieu of modern (grey) cement for the repointing, he directed the use of a "fawn" color mortar made of of sand, lime and crushed oyster shells. The resulting yellow-toned mortar then inspired the choice of paint color for the siding. The Volckers decided to strive for true historic accuracy by making authentic ochre paint, mixing powdered pigments with linseed oil. Whether the European color recipe was missing certain elements or was simply not well-adapted to the Virginia climate, the linseed paint was ultimately replaced by industrial paint, yet the yellow color remains to this day.

The Clover Forest Manor Home's exterior currently features the shutter green (as seen at James Madison’s Montpelier) as an accent to the yellow of Monticello's dining room. We at Clover Forest like to pretend that, like Thomas Jefferson himself did in 1815, we laid our hands on some French lead chromate yellow pigment and decided to show it off to the whole neighborhood. In other words, you can't possibly miss it! ;-)

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Goochland, VA 23063

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