Editor's note: The following is one of a series of columns from the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization.
Painting cheap wood to mimic the appearance of interesting grain patterns originated in the late 1700s.
Painted wood grain, or "faux bois,” became an art form by late Victorian times and reached its peak during the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century.
The Industrial Revolution led to mass production of mantels, balustrades, wooden doors and other building materials. For the developing middle class in the United States, such items were made from wood that was not all that attractive in and of itself, resulting in desire to paint the surfaces.
Painted wood grain artists could emulate knots, tree-ring patterns, and even insect damage so accurately that their products could easily be mistaken for expensive imported wood. That was the goal, of course. I lived in my 1898 house for months before someone pointed out to me that my stairway balustrade and pocket doors were painted and not actual wood textures.
In Butte, painted wood grain can be found in homes representing diverse levels of class, but it was the middle class that had the wherewithal to decorate their houses in this manner. The Hub Addition (Montana to Alabama, and Woolman to Platinum Street) represents largely 1890s residential growth, and painted wood grain survives in several homes there. The first public school in the neighborhood, Lincoln Elementary, was built at Clark and Broadway in 1892, anchoring the growth of the addition.
Although a few artisans continue painting wood grain for occasional historic preservation goals, the technique was largely discontinued and lost after clear finishes and stains were developed in the 1920s and 1930s to bring out otherwise obscure patterns in cheap wood.
If you have original painted wood grain — on walls, doors, or furniture — don't paint it over. Not only is it important to the historical integrity of a house or object, it will likely add significant monetary value to your property.
Dick Gibson is secretary and webmaster for Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization. For more information about CPR, visit www.buttecpr.org or stop by the office on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 405 W. Park St., Suite 200.