This presentation is part of Are We There Yet? Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions Symposium, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 10-12, 2018.
By Tania Alam
Paint color palettes are an inexpensive preservation tool that have been used to great effect. They may not be accurate, but they work.
Today the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District of South Beach is known internationally for having one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world. Its signature is a range of pastel colors including yellow, pink, blue and green used on buildings lining the oceanfront. However, it was not such a bright place in the 1970s. Older people were returning to inexpensive Miami Beach, crime had increased, and businesses were in decline. The older buildings fell into disrepair. Local developers planned to tear down most of the existing buildings to make way for more “profitable” construction; all part of a multi-million urban renewal project that was believed to increase revenue and “save” the district from its changing demographics. Barbara Capitman, founder of Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), put up a fight and was able to get the area listed in the National Register of Historic Places in May, 1979. Another member of MDPL, Leonard Horowitz, made a significant difference by creating a color palette.
Horowitz wanted to attract the viewers’ attentions to the Art Deco features on building facades and simultaneously create a sense of continuity through changing shades of color from one building to the next. His “pastel palette” proved successful – most of the hotel buildings still stand today while newer structures continue to preserve the look that South Beach is famous for.
Although not as well-known as the South Beach Historic District, the Main Street rejuvenation project in Columbus, Indiana saw the application of a similar concept. Alexander Girard, an architect from Mexico, was given the task of cleaning and beautifying the storefronts up and down Washington Street by the Irwin Union Trust Company in 1961. The goal of the project was to save the historic business district.
Using color as one of his most important tools, Girard created a palette of twenty-six colors that he thought was historically appropriate for the Victorian era storefronts and commercial buildings. The color scheme was intended to accentuate period architectural details on the buildings, and work simultaneously with the addition of porcelain enamel signs and fluorescent lights installed above the marquee level on all stores to create a unified streetscape. Bright colors (like orange and green) were used primarily to emphasize decorative elements such as cornices, lintels and trim, while more restful shades (like light-blue and beige) were applied on the main body. Through this new “balanced” aesthetic, Girard was able to convince the locals to continue using, and consequently preserving the older buildings. His approach has later been emulated for other Main Street restoration projects.
Although not necessarily based on scientific or historic fact, these color palettes have played significant roles in the preservation of roadside architecture in American cities. They were inexpensive, creative, and easy to apply. And they have greatly facilitated the preservation of buildings that were otherwise destined for demolition.
Tania Alam is an architectural conservator at Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. (JBC) in New York City, NY. Alam has a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation. She graduated from Columbia University with her Master of Science in Historic Preservation in 2017, and received her Bachelors of Architecture from Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (Dhaka, Bangladesh) in 2014. While at JBC Alam has conducted conditions assessments, testing and analysis. Special interests include architectural paint, historic color palettes, color psychology, and energy efficient building design.