Anthony Kartsonas, co-owner and founder of Historic Surfaces, discusses the history of house paints and finishing techniques during a Grosse Pointe Historical Society program Oct. 25 at Pier Park in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Anthony Kartsonas, co-owner and founder of Historic Surfaces, discusses the history of house paints and finishing techniques during a Grosse Pointe Historical Society program Oct. 25 at Pier Park in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran


Older home painting projects call for a brush with history

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published November 7, 2017

 Historic Surfaces worked on conserving and preserving the original decorative finishes at Brucemore Estate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a home built by American artist Grant Wood.

Historic Surfaces worked on conserving and preserving the original decorative finishes at Brucemore Estate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a home built by American artist Grant Wood.

Photo provided by Anthony Kartsonas

METRO DETROIT — When you think about house paint, you’re most likely wrestling with the color and finish. But if you have a house with history, you might have other considerations as well.

Depending on when your home was constructed, it might feature a type of paint that’s no longer common or is hard to find. Or your home could have special details — such as glazing, stenciling or gilding — that could be challenging to repair.

The Grosse Pointe Historical Society hosted the first in a new series of pop-up programs Oct. 25 featuring an introduction to historical paints and traditional house painting presented by Anthony Kartsonas. Kartsonas and his wife, Mata, are the co-owners of Historic Surfaces, which specializes in historical paint restoration, analysis and finishing projects. 

Kartsonas has more than 20 years of experience in the field and has worked on dozens of national landmarks and properties on the National Register of Historic Places. He and his wife recently moved to Grosse Pointe Park. Their company is working on restoration now at Fair Lane in Dearborn, the historical estate where Henry and Clara Ford once lived.

Fresco, or limewash, is one of the earliest types of paint, but while it was used on structures in the early history of America, Kartsonas said it wasn’t used later because it has to be reapplied every few years and requires multiple coats.

“It wasn’t very practical,” he said. “It’s not a resilient finish. It’s intended to be a breathable barrier.”

Especially in a place like Michigan, where temperatures fluctuate widely, Kartsonas said limewash is uncommon.

Next came the water-based distemper, also known as calcium carbonate. It was created with chalk, which was referred to as “whiting,” and was good for interiors and commonly used in American interiors in the 18th and 19th centuries, Kartsonas said. However, its use was phased out by the end of the 20th century.

Calcimine came next, and its use continued into the 1920s, Kartsonas said. 

“It gives this beautiful, super-buff finish,” he said. 

However, it’s susceptible to moisture. Homeowners who’ve experienced peeling or flaking ceiling paint could very well have calcimine paint.

A later version of calcimine was casein, which Kartsonas said used a protein in milk. It was common in the 1940s because oil had to be used for the war effort, not for house paint.

The protein “made the paint tough as nails,” but Kartsonas said it also created a soft surface.

“The trouble is, it’s a bear to paint over,” he said.

Casein was the foundation for modern latex and acrylic paints, Kartsonas said.

After World War II, oil paint became more common in homes.

Kartsonas and his team are often called upon to restore stencil patterns, gilding, trompe l’oeil, wood graining, marbling or glazing.

“It changes the entire look of the whole space,” GPHS board member Ann Loshaw said of glazing. “The light reflects in a whole new way. It really does something to the whole room.”

If you’re trying to figure out what kind of paint might have been used in your home, Kartsonas said some municipalities maintain records of when a home was built. If you know the age of your home, it’s easier to narrow down the type of paint likely used in it. Historical groups like the Grosse Pointe Historical Society may have records as well; the GPHS has the original blueprints for some homes, for example.

Catalog and kit homes, which were common in the early portion of the 20th century, are another source of data. Kartsonas said Sears and Montgomery Ward, two of the major manufacturers of these kits, have archives as well, and he said the ones for Sears are particularly good.

Loshaw said homeowners should “really educate (themselves) as much as possible” before tackling a historical painting restoration job, and she also recommended “seeing things in person,” such as making visits to historical homes or sites.

Those who’d rather hire someone to do the work need to be careful as well.

“It’s hard to distinguish who knows what they’re talking about and who doesn’t,” Kartsonas said.

Even many of the popular home improvement programs “show a lot of poor practice,” he said.

The Michigan Historic Preservation Network is a good resource for homeowners to learn how to restore their homes or find contractors who are knowledgeable about such projects, Kartsonas said. In January, Kartsonas will be leading hands-on workshops at Fair Lane.

And Kartsonas will even work with do-it-yourself homeowners to get them started. He said he tries to make his services affordable, including consulting services.

“I want people to feel empowered to do things themselves,” Kartsonas said.