A Brief History of Decorative Painting in Brooklyn and Beyond

When the historic homes we now live in and admire in Brooklyn were new, they were often upgraded with decorative painting.

Special color effects have a long history in the United States, dating back at least to the beginning of the 18th century and still popular today. Contrary to stereotypes, pre- and post-independence houses were full of colors and patterns. Dots and circles enlivened halls and kitchens, and painted scenes and trompe l’oeil vignettes covered the cladding of chimneys in New England salons, as Nina Fletcher Little’s American Decorative Wall Painting so well documents.

‘The Sargent Family’ by an unknown artist from 1800 with stenciled walls. Image via National Gallery of Art

In the Victorian era, decorative painting moved away from scenes and freehand abstraction. During the federal and Greek revival in the first half of the 19th century, doors were artificially grained, even in fine woods such as mahogany, and floor cloths were painted to resemble marble. When Neo-Grec architecture became fashionable in the 1870s, stencils, polychrome, geometric patterns, and other decorative color effects were popular, as historical photographs and illustrations of interiors show. Entrance halls, salons, and dining rooms were the most likely places where decorative paint treatments were performed – often on plaster ceilings and beamed ceilings.

In the late 19th century, color effects were often designed to enhance existing architecture by highlighting panels on walls and ceilings or embellishments on cornices. The ceilings were divided into geometric shapes, sometimes around an oval center. Moldings and decorations can be selected in different colors. geometric decorations dotted beams; and vines, ribbons, or abstract flourishes filled corners and panels.

with museum

A detail of the frieze, hand painted and stenciled on canvas, that adorned the dressing room of the Manhattan townhouse by Arabella Worsham in 1882. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift from the New York City Museum, 2008

Photos, illustrations, and written reports from the day show that decorative painting was common in upper and middle class homes – even in rental apartments. In a brown stone on the corner of Lee Avenue and Hewes Street in what is now south Williamsburg, a front bedroom was decorated in shades of blue in 1888. “The ceiling was frescoed to show knots in a mild shade of blue with a deep hue. Fries of Japoniens” – probably some kind of flower – an article in the February 26, 1888 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Build Brooklyn: And Also make the city beautiful ”. In another house at 174 South 9th Street, the back parlor ceiling was “frescoed to depict the four seasons and the plush silk walls were draped over a molding.” A house next to 512 Bedford Avenue had Lincrusta paneling in the hall with side walls “made of terracotta, painted with fine stencil work. The blankets are exquisitely decorated with matching straw colors. “Far away in a cottage on Mt. Vernon, Virginia, in a drawing room“ decorated in old rose and silver ”, the ceiling was“ adorned with colonial garlands, fuschias and a flight of swallows, ”we read in the March 1895 issue of Scientific American.

Advertisements for rentals often mention that the apartments are “decorated”. An advertisement in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on October 25, 1895 went on to specify an apartment at 308 Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights with “frescoed ceilings” plus seven rooms, “cupboard panels” and a waiter.

1882 ad Brooklyn house for sale

An 1882 advert for a Brooklyn house with frescoed ceilings and decorated walls. Image via Brookyn Daily Eagle

An ornate, but inexpensive, wooden-painted lady in what is now Bed Stuy had a colorful and heavily patterned interior, traces of the original surfaces show this. It was built in 1895 as a two-family house without central heating and was equipped with an egg-blue robin dining room with imitation oak, which was painted like oak. The picture frame railings with rope pattern on the salon floor were gold-plated and polychrome-plated. The slate cladding of the coal chimneys was decorated with gilded, incised ornaments and painted to look like marble.

Striking examples of original 19th-century painted surfaces can be found in Olana near Hudson, NY, Acorn Hall in Morristown, NJ, Ebenezer Maxwell House in Philadelphia, and further afield the Linley Sambourne House in London and at Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, England.

Designs on plaster of paris were often done in water-based paints such as calcimin and distemper; Oil paints were preferred for woodwork. According to Roger W. Moss and Gail Caskey Winkler in Victorian Interior Decoration, stencils were useful for ceilings that were lighter than walls in the late 19th century, but were rarely white.

decorative painting

A painted ceiling in Washington, DC, home of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, circa 1900. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston via the Library of Congress

The cornice and molding could be selected in various soft colors, and the paint manufacturers published many examples. Some decoration books suggested painting door panels and shutters with subjects such as grapevines and foliage. Examples abound at Linley Sambourne House.

The owner and creator of Olana, the Hudson River School landscape painter, Frederic Edwin Church, preferred oil paints on both woodwork and plaster of paris. “No surprise to a master of the medium who uses very little watercolor,” said William Coleman, director of collections and exhibitions at The Olana Partnership.

Church hired sign and carriage painters to carry out his complex designs, and under his guidance, paints of pigment, oil, and turpentine were mixed.

The decorative painting styles changed over the years, but remained popular well into the 20th century. In the 1980s and 1990s, decorative color effects from sponge to trompe l’oeil experienced a resurgence, sparked by Jocasta Innes’ book “Paint Magic” and the continued influence of the late decorator John Fowler of Colefax and Fowler.

“While Olana and the interior trim that defines the main house are certainly spectacular, Church wasn’t the only one using patterned interior paints to create a mood,” said Coleman.

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring / Summer 2020 issue of Brownstoner magazine. It was completed before the pandemic.

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