Color for a group? It’s a historic Boston building!

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We’re familiar with the ‘old song’ about  the difficulties that can occur getting 2 people who share a home to agree on design decisions.

As pleased as I was to be asked to consult with the owners of a historic Boston co-op building, I was equally aware of the challenges in satisfying the requirements of a group of property-owners sharing a very real interest in the same building.  The subject of my work for them was to create a new color palette for the lobby and vestibule of their  1924, “classic Old-Boston” building in the historic heart of Boston.

Boston Downtown

Historic Building in Boston

The Challenge.
My first meeting with the property owners included at least one person representing each unit. After our introductions, we had a vibrant dialogue that consisted primarily of their expressing personal likes and dislikes. Starting with the existing bright yellow in both the vestibule and the lobby itself, opinions were effusive and diverse!   “I Hate Yellow! ”  “I’d Kill for Yellow!”

Vestibule color before...

First view upon arrival

Well, the fact is that the existing color Was yellow, in the lobby area as well as the entry vestibule. The dialogue continued, then, with a review of the purpose of my working with them and defining the goals. Having listened to…and Hearing…their concerns, I described the approach I would take to meet the goals.

The Process.
Basically, it came down to “what is best for the building will be best for the group.”  This is a good example of communicating when it’s necessary to leave the individuals’ strongest color preferences in their own interior spaces. As a core belief I hold for this kind of situation,  it was my consistent emphasis at that time and throughout the entire extended process of the renovation.

During that first day, I selected a variety of colors to create an overall palette direction. I focused on a range of warm and cool “earth-tones” with a few accent colors as options to consider.

The points that were the focus of my approach in meeting their requests included:

  • Make the most of the beautiful, historic building.
  • Classic colors that suit the building. A palette that’s distinctive, not “ordinary.”
  • Focus on the architecture.
  • It’s often about moving beyond what is currently there, what we’re used to seeing. Change can be traumatic.
  • What’s the experience we, and others, have when coming into–and leaving–the building?
  • Respect for and reflection of the quality and style of the current panel murals. Not matching, rather enhancing and supporting.

The Spaces.
I was asked to consult about paint colors for “a lobby.” When I arrived at the site for our first meeting, I discovered something a bit more complex. Yes, only two spaces–not one. But what a pair!

Timing is important!
Because the color selections were just one part (but, a critically important part!) of the process of the extensive renovation of the space, it was good to be brought in at the beginning of the process rather than right before the painters were to start. I visited the site throughout the construction process for color-plan reviews with the group’s point person. Actually sometimes 2 or 3 people met with me but that was a good thing to continue to communicate and confirm our direction and the ultimate selections.

After developing the main palette for the two spaces, which included a variety interesting, yet conservative, colors, they asked me to add an alternate palette they described as “bolder, brighter, and  ‘cheerier’.'” Remember, they are coming from …bright yellow.

Entry vestibule
Coming in from the street, the vestibule has some natural light–but of course being very dimly lit at night with limited light sources. Lots of an almost-pink color marble, high ceiling, beautiful black, wrought-iron crafted doors. Bright yellow walls!

The Lobby Area
A long, narrow rectangle – you enter on the long side. At each end of the room there’s an entrance to an individual condo. Each of the upper stories of the building has only one unit per floor. The walls are divided into sections with moldings framing mural panels. The walls below the chair-rail molding are divided in the traditional manner with sectioned frame-style molding.

Looking at one end of the lobby

Yellow walls, overhead fans with lights, and 2 table lamps make the yellow walls even more glaring

The Murals.
As it happened, and what came out in conversations, people had reactions to the murals that were as strong as their feelings about the current yellow wall color!  Some of the owners even said they had never really liked the murals.

But most were wanting to keep them, so the questions became:  How to select a color that will support the hues and tone of the mural panels, yet not have to “match” anything there?

First viewof one mural

One of the mural panels, with yellow walls and white trim

Near the murals, the space called for a particular color type.
The lower part of the wall had some other requirements because it was adjacent to the marble (same as vestibule) as baseboard, with a multicolored stone floor that had very different color indications.

Even though I intended to keep all the background wall colors very “neutral,” personally I thought that it could be interesting to pick up one or another of the mural colors in an accent…even a very thin pencil-outline around the mural frame, as if using a fillet in the mat and framing of artwork. I still think this would have been an interesting way to make the murals be more like individual fine art pieces, since they were each already framed as if they were individual paintings.

We also briefly considered a variety of decorative treatments that would have been completely appropriate to the space, the history,  and the architecture, but budgetary considerations brought us back to the paint-only model.

The Floor.

In any location the floor is usually a large portion of visible surface. Even with furniture in a room, it’s a big consideration in any space because, after all, it is at the base of what every other surface relates to in some way, either perpendicularly or parallel.

Mixed-color stone floor

Stone floor, in reality it's much more attractive than when it reflected yellow from the walls

In this case, the floor was a very distinctive coloration when you look closely at it. Some very deep green-black tones as well as the more warm, sandy colors made up the stone floor that at the time of our meeting was mostly covered in a strong, dark green utility rug.

The Stone.
In the entry vestibule, we have an entirely different situation for materials.Well, not 100% different—because the marble that was used in this area was also, as it happened, used in the lobby area as the baseboard.

Because of the large portion of this marble, and also a granite landing at the head of the steps going into the lobby, I wanted to introduce a slightly different combination of colors in the Entry vestibule. I looked for colors that would visually connect with—not isolate from—the actual lobby, yet using I wanted colors that were also more appropriate to the lighting and materials in this area specifically.

Vestibule marble, same as baseboard in lobby

Vestibule marble is the same as baseboard in lobby

One of the parties had  a personal request to see something like a very pale pink on the walls with a grayish greenish white on the trim–or even perhaps perhaps a stronger color like “a soft orange, with a cream trim.”  She mentioned it being difficult for some people to go from bright yellow to “gray,” so they wanted to see a brighter, more vivid, option. Having no problem with this I did present another palette that would also represent the goals for this space. Ultimately they selected one of the original color combinations.

The Lighting.
Knowing that there would be an entirely different lighting setup once the construction was done–yet working in a very yellow, low-light situation during the entire paint specification process, was interesting. It required quite a bit of imagination and awareness of the impact of lighting on how color will really ‘look’ in a particular area under different conditions.

I had no real examples of the  specified lighting, where I could refer to my actual painted color cards for a representation of my palette in the renovated space. I just knew somewhat the type and basic “color” of the specified lighting.  It was helpful to consult with the lighting designer for this project, Doreen LeMay Madden of Lux Lighting Design, about what I might expect, in general, from the lighting plan she had created for this space.

Getting Married
All these elements that were not really so noticeable at first glance, with the overpoweringly hued yellow walls and the inadequate lighting. But when you take away the distractions of the extreme yellow and the green rug, the marriage had to go forward into a future of the two spaces having compatible and complementary, harmonious existence!

Entry vestibule

Ellen Kennon Full Spectrum Paint helps it happen!

view into the lobbyView from entry vestibule into the lobby

Lobby, toward one end

View to the same end of lobby as above. Dark section on wainscot is the original decorative radiator grille.

Lobby view

Lobby and murals view.

A client comments, representing the group:
“The colors look very very nice!
I would say the overall response has been good! No major complaints at all, and most of us feel it looks clean, sophisticated, but still traditional. The gray appears much more blue /gray – almost lavender, which I personally like.

Mentally, it is hard for a few to see that the gray is actually lighter and brighter than the previous yellow but I think they are adjusting to that, however , the new pendant lights and the full spectrum paint will in the end make the lobby lighter and brighter – perhaps not as  ‘cheery’ anymore, but very pretty.”

It’s True
Change can be hard. Any color scheme that we have lived with for many years can, even with a desire to change, be a hard thing to give up. Even if we Love the new colors, it can be hard. Put that together with a group of individuals who each needs to participate in the process (it’s their home after all, even if it’s the lobby), and the issue is communication as well as color! With an office building it’s less about the individuals and more about what the owner needs to accomplish.

The Results!
Happy Building, Happy Clients!
A “spokesplace” so to speak, for the unique qualities of Ellen Kennon Full Spectrum Paints.

Some of the owners were even willing to paint over the murals

18 Responses to “Color for a group? It’s a historic Boston building!”

  1. Elizabeth Brown

    I find the results most pleasing! So much to deal with…conflicting opinions, existing elements, historical accuracy, yet adding a fresh a modern approach. Wow. You did a great job.

  2. Kate Smith

    Having worked with condo associations on remodels here in DC I can appreciate your process. It is always a challenge no matter what the building looks like or what condition it is in. Getting any group to happily agree is a challenge especially when it comes to color.

    I think the results your created are a major improvement and just perfect for the building. Nicely done Barbara!

    • bjacobs

      Kate, thanks for your thoughtful comment and taking the time to write it! One of these days I’ll post an exterior project with a group of 6 condo owners. Waiting for construction to be done to get the “after” photos!

  3. Marie

    Great post and representation of the process of such a large project. I love the results and the murals are more of a focal point now that they are not competing with that yellow! I’m finding the same challenges in suggesting color for my children’s school that we live across from…..and trying to find the right vision for my neighbors, the school, the district and architect team.

  4. Scott Courtenay-Smith

    Great explanation of the challenges involved in what we do, Barbara. I recently did a consultation for a duplex exterior– two couples (actually one husband opted out of the process)– so I can only imagine how tricky this must have been.

    • bjacobs

      Thanks for your comment, Scott. I have another project to post once it’s done being painted: exterior, 6-family in Boston.

  5. Lisa Vail

    Excellent job on all counts! First off, kudos for managing so many opinions and preferences with such grace. It really is about listening to the building and what it needs-and that’s just what you did. The grey married all the different materials (and grey marble and two tones of tan travertine flooring is not an easy marriage!) and let the architecture finally get to take center stage. Sometimes the right color is the one you don’t notice immediately. I bet that full spectrum paint is positively gorgeous in person!

    • bjacobs

      Thank you, Lisa. You have a good observation about the right color. And actually, yes, the full spectrum paint really makes it work. A “regular” gray would just not have the same kind of atmospheric quality.

  6. Mary Ellen Lapp

    Beautiful light fixtures. With your color expertise, the murals look like art, rather than decoration competing with the screaming yellow. Makes me breathe a sigh of relief.

  7. Marcia Walter, ASID, IACC

    Yes, the new color does much more justice to the architecture & enhances the murals too. Just much more gracious altogether! I’d love to know the exact gray.

  8. Lausanne Davis Carpenter

    Wow! Barbara, thank you for sharing in such detail. The process is so hard for most people to appreciate even though they are ready to “kill for yellow”. It shows how passionate people are about their color experience. Excellent play-by-play.


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