Discovering Color in Historic Metalwork
We are working on the decoration for the new headquarters building for Historic Hudson Valley, an organization overseeing the preservation of some of the most important historic monuments of American design. Peter Pennoyer Architects are the architects. In the course of working on the decoration, which is part curatorial and part, dare I say, quest for beauty, we suggested a small garden at the front of the building to serve as an introductory space or “room” to introduce visitors to the interiors. To play on the four-square nature of the Neo Georgian façade, we suggested a pair of exedra-shaped stone pads to flank a path to the building along with conforming round benches. The benches we specified are the Robertson Curved Benches by McKinnon and Harris.
The question of color for the benches arose. The assumption was to paint them the same old dark black/green that is the perennial choice for garden benches, an ideal color because it fades into the landscape, allowing furniture to have a sort of visible camouflage. However, I thought for creative interest that we should use another shade of green or maybe even blue.
When I am in Europe, I am always reminded of the variety of colors that metal work can be, besides the expected black or green. Perhaps the most striking reminder is the gates to Hyde Park that were saved from the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exposition of 1851. These are painted iron red, a color that reminds me of primer, and is very beautiful against the green of the park. Other colorful examples are the red/gold railings at Albert Hall and the blue/gold fence at Het Loo Palace in the Netherlands.
From colonial America, there is the example of the restored governor’s mansion of Virginia at Williamsburg. When the building was reconstructed in 1934 (the original was destroyed in the 18th century), the railings and gates were painted the tasteful 20th-century choice black. In the last decade, based on further research, the metal work has been made a surprising, at least to our eyes, off white.
I came across this article by Patrick Baty, “The Use of Colour on Architectural Ironwork 1660-1960,” which points out that blue was often the color associated with early ironwork and that other traditional colors were red-brown, green and grey. He discusses how black was rarely used until the 1930’s when alkyd paints were introduced that made it easier to achieve color formulations such as black.
Perhaps the result of looking at the color of historic metal work is a good example of looking to the past for new possibilities…
Images from top: Robertson curved bench from McKinnon and Harris; finish colors from McKinnon and Harris; gates to Hyde Park; fence at Albert Hall; gate to Governor’s Mansion at Williamsburg; entry gate to Het Loo Palace in the Netherlands