Capitol Hill Restoration Society

Painted Brick: Pros & Cons – Preservation Cafe

Posted on September 22nd, 2015

The September 16, 2015 Preservation Cafe featured local architectural conservator and Capitol Hill resident, Justine Posluszny Bello, speaking on the issues associated with painting historic brick rowhouses.  

Ms. Bello premised the talk on the idea that the questions surrounding the painting of historic brick (or not) are not straightforward and rely greatly on context; a simple “yes” or “no”, or “pro” or “con” position may be too simplistic.

Ms. Bello explained some of the reasons why people have historically used paints (both on brick and elsewhere): to functionally protect, to inspire and delight, to visually unify or visually differentiate, to show off one’s class or wealth, to “upgrade” humble materials, even to communicate information in the form of signage. She also described the past precedent for painting brick and historically what types of paints have performed well on brick surfaces: paints that are “breathable” and allow moisture and salts to readily pass through both the brick and the paint, such as limewashes.  Ms. Bello then described how many modern paints create an impervious barrier on the brick surface, meaning moisture and salts end up trapped within the brick; with no place to go, the sensitive brick building material ends up becoming damaged.

Ms. Bello discussed that it might be too simple to characterize all painted brick as “bad” or “destructive” and instead, to consider the question of appropriateness: finding an appropriate paint that is compatible with a specific type of brick (and yes, there are many different types of bricks with different qualities out there) from both a historical and a physical/technical perspective. Ms. Bello listed some of the resource available to homeowners to help them make informed decisions concerning their specific property: Technical Preservation Briefs published by the National Park Service, knowledgeable and reputable contractors, technical representatives at paint companies themselves, third-party consultants and experts and of course CHRS. While housepaint is something that is virtually unregulated in the Capitol Hill Historic District, this is not the case in all historic districts outside of DC; it’s important to familiarize yourself with the local laws in your community to understand what is regulated and what is not and in turn, to use all the information you’ve collected to make informed decisions that are good for the longevity your historic treasure.