Paint Colors for a Foursquare - A Case Study

Amy and Tim's Big Adventure in House Painting

2 large square houses with identical detailings
The Popular Foursquare Design. Jackie Craven

The Foursquare home is an iconic American design. It has a virtual (or actual) square footprint rising to two stories with a large dormered attic. It was a trendy design at the beginning of the 20th century when mail-order houses were popular — an easy choice from a catalog that a local builder could adapt to the client's wishes. Because of the geometry, it was easy to build and modified in a variety of ways. The interior traditionally has four rooms over four rooms, thus the "foursquare" name, but often a center hallway was added for convenience of the occupants.

The American Foursquare design is found in most every neighborhood across the United States, but now these homes are over a century old. Repairing and renovating the Foursquare are very common tasks. Join us as we follow two homeowners in their search for the perfect colors for their old home.

Searching For the Right House Colors

two-story foursquare home with four window shed dormer and full front porch
Amy & Tim Bought a Foursquare. Amy & Tim

Built in about 1910, this charming home is a classic American Foursquare with hints of Queen Anne styling — the second floor bay window mimics the typical rounded turret. The owners, Amy and Tim, loved the natural, tan-toned brick, but they also wanted to accent the architectural details. The couple began to search for historic colors that would highlight the window sashes, moldings, and other trim.

Typical of the American Foursquare style, Amy and Tim's home has a symmetrical shape, wide eaves, and low, hipped roof. The main portion of the house is brick. The dormers are sided in the original gray slate. The main roof is a reddish-gray color — mostly a light terra cotta color with flecks of light gray and charcoal gray. Although the house was built in about 1910, the sunroom was probably added later.

Located in Southern Ohio, Amy and Tim's home is surrounded by turn-of-the-century homes in a variety styles. The area includes a few Tudors that have been painted bright blue, sunshine yellow, neon green, and other bright colors. However, most of the homes in this neighborhood are conservative. Lavish "painted ladies" are not the norm here.

Removing the Vinyl Siding

Detail of the Sunporch with red window panes
The Sunporch. Amy & Tim

The base of their sunroom was surrounded by vinyl siding — definitely not in keeping with the character of the 1910 Foursquare home.

Before they began painting, Amy and Tim ripped off the vinyl to discover a pleasant surprise underneath — solid wood panels with decorative moldings. This happy discovery should give any owner of an old home the courage to look underneath the plastic.

Experimenting With Paint Colors

detail of unpainted white window next to a newly painted deep red window
Amy and Tim Tried Paint Colors on the Window Sills at the Back of Their Foursquare House. Amy & Tim

Amy and Tim considered numerous color possibilities for their American Foursquare home. They shared photos of the house and received helpful advice from architectural color consultant Robert Schweitzer, author of the book Bungalow Colors.

To reflect the original intent of this 1910 American Foursquare and also highlight important design features, Schweitzer looked closely at architectural history. The Foursquare is a product of the Arts & Crafts era. Schweitzer found suggestions for Arts & Crafts homes in a brochure from Monarch Mixed Paints of Chicago, which was published during this time period.

Foursquare homes in the early 20th century were most commonly painted in autumn tones. The Monarch brochure recommended using four colors. To create a color scheme using contemporary paints, Schweitzer matched specific color chips from the Monarch brochure to the Sherwin-Williams exterior fan set, which is widely available throughout North America. Schweitzer's solution:

  • Major Trim - Renwick Olive SW2815
  • Minor Trim - Caper SW2224
  • Accent - Biltmore Buff SW2345
  • Window Sash - Rookwood Dark Red SW2801

Choosing the Best House Colors

detail of painted window next to unpainted window
After painting parts of the window sills, Amy decided she liked the darkest colors best. Amy & Tim

Choosing the best house colors is a trial and error process. Before painting their Foursquare house, Amy and Tim purchased the suggested colors in small, quart cans. They tested the paint on window sills at the back of the house.

The colors were close, but not quite right. Amy felt that the bricks looked washed out next to the dusty green and red-brown tones. So they tried again with deeper colors. "At first we went just a shade deeper," Amy says. "And then we just went deep."

Finally, Amy and Tim settled on colors from the Porter Paints Historic Colors series: Mountain Green and, to provide contrast, Deep Rose. For their third color they chose "Sea Sand." The sand color closely resembled the wood panels beneath the sunroom. The panels still had their original paint!

Because Amy and Tim were applying dark colors over white trim, several coats were necessary. The Sea Sand coated best and the Mountain Green closely followed. The Deep Rose showed brush marks with the first coat.

The homeowners were glad that they tested their colors on a small portion of the house. Sure, it was expensive to purchase those extra quarts of paint, but in the long run the couple saved money — and time.

"Patience is the key if you are doing it by yourself," Amy says. Painting the detailed trim was indeed a slow process for Tim, who worked in his spare time, weather permitting. And then, to add to the complexity of the job, the couple realized they needed one more color.

Painting the Porch Ceiling

detail of red vertical bracket on front porch with white brick and green beams
Architectural Detail of the Front Porch. Amy & Tim

Winter and spring months in southern Ohio can turn gray and gloomy. Amy and Tim were intrigued when they learned that pale blue paint was used on the porch ceilings of many older homes on the East coast. The blue paint was said to reflect light. For anyone standing inside the house, the day would seem brighter.

Well... why not? So it happened that the porch of their American Foursquare received four colors: Mountain Green, Deep Rose, Sea Sand and a subtle, almost white, blue.

Before and After Painting the Foursquare

archival photo of Amy & Tim's house when the trim was painted white
Old Photo of Brick Foursquare House Painted White. Amy & Tim

Amy and Tim's American Foursquare home has come a long way. This older photo is blurry, but you can see that the architectural trim was painted white.

Painting Details Makes the Difference

American Foursquare Home With Green Painted Trim
Amy & Tim Take Care Painting Details. Amy & Tim

Amy and Tim painted only the trim on their American Foursquare home. But don't underestimate the impact of details. What a difference color makes!

Accentuate the architectural details of the older home, and you can't go wrong. They don't build them like this anymore!