Millwork painted upper floor(s), natural downstairs
November 4, 2012 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Light color paint upstairs, natural wood downstairs in older homes and apartments. Why?

What is the history of painting the upstairs apartment/floor millwork and leaving the downstairs natural with maybe stain only? Why was this done? Is it done in most of the U.S. or only the midwest (where I live)?
If it was just fashion, is there a reason?
posted by Kazimirovna to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
I have no concrete data on this, but one possibility might be that it's a display thing. Stain-quality woodwork/molding is more expensive than woodwork that's only fit for painting an opaque color. So if the house was built at a time when natural/stained wood moldings were in style, it might make sense to budget for that fashionable look in "company" rooms downstairs, while saving money by installing painting-quality wood in bedrooms.
posted by Bardolph at 12:53 PM on November 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Downstairs: Better quality hardwoods to impress visitors and guests. Much upkeep.
Upstairs: No one to impress but ourselves. Save some money. Less upkeep.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:53 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The woodwork in the homes I am thinking of is identical quality. In fact, it's high quality hardwood.
posted by Kazimirovna at 1:01 PM on November 4, 2012

Easier to clean and/or hide the dirt with stain in the most-used rooms downstairs, like the living room and dining room?
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:04 PM on November 4, 2012

I have never heard of that. I'm from the south and currently live in the northeast, so maybe it's a regional thing.

I mostly see the choice made on a housewide level, not upstairs vs. downstairs. If the woodwork is high quality, some people choose to leave the trim and doors unpainted. I've mostly seen it done on older homes with hand-milled trim the owners want to show off (or they just prefer a more traditional look).

In the 70's, exposed wood and wood paneling were popular choices in home design, so you might just be seeing the aftereffects of that.

One thought might be that, traditionally, you'd pay for high quality wood worked by hand by a local artisan for the part of the house guests are likely to see, and cheaper work in the private part of the house. Over time, some people adopted the idea on an axiomatic level without really thinking about why they were doing it. So they continue the practice in our mass-produced era where a slightly nicer grade of trim isn't a huge expense worth bragging to the neighbors about. Just because that's what grandma's house was like, or whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 1:21 PM on November 4, 2012

Just a data point: I live in a 110-year-old house in the midwest. Downstairs woodwork is natural and high-quality mass-produced (ie, not unique to the house). Upstairs has always (as far as I can tell) been painted, and has been painted at a minimum since the 1930s - but the flooring upstairs is much fancier than downstairs, with one room done in birdseye maple and the others with inlaid patterns. This isn't an artifact of the 70s.

I guess I'd go with the "painting is more intimate and shows more dirt so is saved for private spaces" hypothesis unless other info comes to light.
posted by Frowner at 1:29 PM on November 4, 2012

OP, even though the wood is the same high quality hardwood in the house you're thinking of, it still might be a remnant of a widespread use of nicer wood downstairs (where visitors would see it and be duly impressed at your wealth) and cheaper wood upstairs.

I lived for a time in Ithaca New York. My downtown Arts & Crafts house had unpainted (probably never painted) chestnut everywhere downstairs. It was so, so beautiful, even moreso because chestnut is now extinct. My upstairs trim was definitely not chestnut, though I couldn't tell what it was. Some hardwood I don't recognize, like ash, maybe. Most of my friends' houses in Ithaca had the same thing--nicer wood downstairs and cheaper upstairs. The ones I saw unpainted, anyway.

Do you have an Arts & Crafts/Mission home, like a bungalow or a four-square? The Ithaca houses I'm referring above to were all of this style, and all built between 1900 and 1940. Those schools of architecture and design featured natural unstained woods cut and featured to show off the natural grain. But the houses were built and designed for the common man more often than for wealthy people. So it wouldn't be weird at all to use cheaper wood that might get painted in areas not frequented by guests.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:49 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pre-air conditioning, it's damned HOT upstairs in the summer! Painting it a lighter color than the wood reduces the amount of heat radiating inward from the walls.

Colder in the winter? Sure, but the heat from downstairs rises.
posted by perspicio at 4:28 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

My 112 year old arts & crafts house has painted gum trim upstairs and stained oak downstairs - flooring is hardwood throughout. I can't guess about good quality trim upstairs but cheaper softwood on second floor houses in 19th century houses is pretty common.
posted by leslies at 6:13 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Upstairs, where the bathroom is, starts to decay from the bathroom out, homeowners decide to paint the trim in bathroom, then keep going to match. Just a guess.
posted by zippy at 8:22 PM on November 4, 2012

In my sister's 100-year old house, soft woods are used upstairs and fancier hardwoods downstairs. She says is it common in all the houses in her area (North East, near Boston). The assumption is that fancier wood in the public areas is there to impress. The soft woods are painted, the hardwoods are stained, and always have been in this house.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 10:17 PM on November 4, 2012

I live in the UK and my house is like this. No idea why. The house was built in the 1930s and none of the wood is in any way fancy.
posted by emilyw at 1:26 AM on November 5, 2012

My house is like that in some rooms and I have no idea why, but in some cases it might be because the upstairs was added later and for whatever reason (cost, what is in style at the time) was done with painted trim rather than stained.
posted by TedW at 8:00 AM on November 5, 2012

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