A Brush with the Historic Colors of St. Augustine

Today, we are going to paint the town . . . white. Yes, that is right – white. We are looking back in time for our next home improvement project – whitewashing our walls. Let us explore the colors (or lack of colors) that once coated early St. Augustine’s walls.

A photograph of white paint in a plastic bag. The label reads "PAINT SAMPLE ARRIVES S. WINDOW, E. SIDE 2nd FL 11/06"
A paint sample from a window on Arrivas House. (UFDC)

St. Augustine’s residents often used whitewash – or limewash – as a wall treatment. Rather than import expensive oil-based paints, most made their own. They used local materials – such as unslacked lime (crushed seashells), water, and salt. Their recipe resulted in a white-colored wash for both indoor and exterior walls.

The wash also came with many other benefits – including its color. Like today’s interior designers, early residents used the color white to brighten rooms. For centuries homes in the city lacked large glass windows and electricity. Whitewashed walls reflected daylight and candlelight – making it easier to see. They also helped interiors seem roomier rather than dark and dim.

A color photograph of the Castillo de San Marco's sentry tower, which still displays red paint remnants.
The Castillo de San Marco’s sentry tower shows red paint remnants. (UFDC)

On a building’s exterior, whitewash sealed wood and masonry from the elements. Whitewash protected against moisture and temperature extremes – both abundant in Florida. Reducing the amount of moisture deterred rot, mildew, and musty odors. Even coquina, ripio, and tabby walls needed a few coats of whitewash. (These materials although strong functioned best when sealed due to their porous nature.) This allowed structures – such as the Arrivas House and Castillo de San Marcos – to last longer in the subtropics.

Yes, white does get dirty pretty fast in a colonial town. So early St. Augustine residents painted a band of a darker color – called a zocalo – about two feet high along the bottom edge of their structures. This simple trick helped hide mud splatters from the town’s unpaved roads.

A color photograph of the Sanchez de Ortigosa House's brown zocalo on St. George Street. The structure is now the Spanish Dutch Convoy.
A zocalo on the Sanchez de Ortigosa House seen from St. George Street.

To make a darker color, early St. Augustine residents placed additives into their whitewash – such as mustard, dark cobalt, ochre, other pigments. You can see some example colors in this historic restoration guide – featured bellow. Read the full pamphlet about the city’s historic colors in the University of Florida Digital Collections by clicking here.

A brochure with a color palette titled "Historic Colors of Spanish St. Augustine."
A pamphlet on the historic colors by the St. Augustine City Commission. (UFDC)

One thought on “A Brush with the Historic Colors of St. Augustine

  1. Pingback: Dating . . . Historic Buildings with Governor’s House Library – Governor's House Library

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