Picking Paint

What it takes for two downtown buildings to change color
Four swatches of paint on the building at 113 S. Fourth Ave. in Ann Arbor.

Four patches of paint on the building at 113 S. Fourth Ave. in Ann Arbor, which houses Mitchell and Mouat Architects.

“When a group is choosing paint colors, there’s lots of thought about hue, intensity, neutrals, accents, etc. But, it usually comes down to emotion. Just like buying new clothes, you have to try it on before you know if it’s a fit or not.” – Dick Mitchell, in an email to The Chronicle

About a week ago, The Chronicle spotted four fairly uniform rectangles of paint – in four distinctly different colors, but not wildly so – on the front of a downtown brick building that houses Mitchell and Mouat Architects. It seemed clear that a paint job was in the offing, so we decided to ask a simple question: What color?

The short answer is Bunker Hill. The long answer, as is often the case, turns out to be much more interesting.

There are actually two adjacent buildings that will be painted, at 111 and 113 S. Fourth Ave., between Washington and Huron on the east side of Fourth. The buildings contain six condos – four residential, and two owned by businesses: Mitchell and Mouat, and Circumference, which sells high-end bicycles. Dick Mitchell – known as “Mitch,” who’s a partner in the architecture firm – describes the people who inhabit these buildings, for work or their home, as “a real assortment of downtown oddballs, ourselves included.”

That means decision-making for major projects like this is … interesting.

The decision to paint stems from a need to do some maintenance on the structures. The building to the north is the Heinrich Building, constructed in 1870 and originally a saloon. (We reported on one small bit of the building’s history last year.) The building at 113 S. Fourth was built about 10 years later, Mitchell said, and was a blacksmith shop – iron rings are still in the walls where customers tied up their horses. Its lineage also includes a period when it served as a Studebaker sales & service shop.

These buildings are made of Chicago common brick, a soft red brick that was a popular construction material in the last half of the 19th century. This type of masonry requires more maintenance than other materials, Mitchell said. The lime-based mortar that was used on the building is soft, and has started to erode. If stronger mortar were used to repair it, like the Portland cement mortar that workmen began using in the early 1900s, then in the brick vs. mortar face-off, “the one with the greatest strength wins,” Mitchell explained. That is, as the soft brick absorbs water and expands, the mortar doesn’t budge and causes the face of the brick to shear off.

So first, the buildings need to be repointed – a process of applying new mortar. That made it a logical time to paint, too. Plus, everyone in the buildings hates the current color – no one can remember who picked it when they painted about eight years ago, Mitchell said.

Close-up of a runner-up paint choice. This swatch was in the alley on the north side of 111 S. Fourth.

This patch was in the alley on the north side of 111 S. Fourth. The light green is the building's current color. The blue-gray is a runner-up color choice that didn't make the final cut.

After some discussion, the condo owners narrowed down the color choices to four, out of a possible 2,000 offered by ICI Paints. Next, they decided to paint sample patches on all sides of the buildings – north, south, east and west – to see how the colors looked in different light. The north side, for example, faces a narrow alley and is mostly in shadow. On the east and west sides, the light changes dramatically as the sun rises and sets.

And then they lived with it for a few weeks.

The response to color is emotional and subjective, Mitchell notes. One couple actually moved out of their condo in part because their distaste of the building’s current color was so strong. (He pointed out that the couple even went so far as to paint the back wall a slightly different shade of green. Apparently it didn’t help enough to keep them in the condo.)

He also said that on the Saturday when he was painting sample colors on the building, passers-by on their way to and from the Ann Arbor Farmers Market overwhelmingly favored the light blue color. And everyone had an opinion.

Mitchell said that despite having way too many choices and many people with strong opinions, the owners were able to reach consensus and choose Bunker Hill – a color that those of us who aren’t in the paint-naming business would call dark green.

But they aren’t finished yet. The next task is to pick accent colors for the trim – they’ve narrowed it to four color groups, with three colors in each group. Names like Unicorn White, Inheritance (“That would have to be green, wouldn’t it?” Mitchell said) and Prickly Pear. The Chronicle was unable to view these colors firsthand: The cards used to display the hues had been left outside – hung up next to the patches of paint on the front of the building – and had gone missing sometime over the weekend, Mitchell reported on Monday. The other color choice to be made is for entry doors. In that case, everyone gets to pick whatever color they want for their own door. Those being considered include The Color Purple, Juliet’s Potion, Sun God and Algonquin Red.

For accents, one way or another the owners will come to a decision at a meeting Tuesday night devoted exclusively to that topic. They’re on a timeline – the man hired to do the work, Bill Gaul of Grass Lake, is starting the job on June 15. It’ll take him about a month to do the repointing plus two coats of the elastomeric paint – a type chosen because it “stretches” to cover cracks yet allows the brick to breathe, Mitchell said.

He didn’t want the cost of the project disclosed, but said that owners pay a share based on the amount of square footage they have. His business, owning 30% of the total space, will pay the most.

Color swatches on a desk at Mitchell and Mouat Architects. The four cards at the bottom left are being considered for entry doors.

Color swatches on a desk at Mitchell and Mouat Architects. The four cards at the bottom left are being considered for entry doors.

As far as we know, none of the colors on this door in the alley of 113 S. Fourth are being considered as paint choices for the building.

As far as we know, none of the colors on this door in the alley of 113 S. Fourth are being considered as paint choices for the building.

111 and 113 S. Fourth Ave.

111 and 113 S. Fourth Ave.


  1. By Mary Morgan
    June 10, 2009 at 11:00 am | permalink

    I’m not sure why I find this process fascinating, but clearly I do – and here’s an update. Dick Mitchell reported the outcome of yesterday’s owners meeting, and they settled on a different color than any of those previously proposed. From an email he sent this morning: “I taped our ‘short list’ of about 30 colors to the wall. Much to my surprise, less than an hour later, we made our final decisions and all went home smiling. We dumped the ‘Bunker Hill’ for ‘Pendulum’ as a base color. The trim will be ‘Meadowlark.’ The windows will be ‘Dark Secret.’”

    It turns out, “Pendulum” is a color that matches the rear (east) wall – the one referenced in the article as being repainted because residents couldn’t stand the existing color.

    And now, I’m off to run errands on my Argentinian Berry scooter…

  2. By RJM
    June 10, 2009 at 11:49 am | permalink

    David – How about a little commentary on the Bullitt bikes that Circumference sells? You seem uniquely qualified…