Barbara A. Yocum took 315 paint samples from throughout the Frederick Douglass house, carefully using a No. 18 blade in an X-Acto knife. The paint was studied under a microscope with tungsten light, then ultraviolet light. The U.S. Park Service architectural conservator also scoured Douglass's documents, looking for paint receipts, service orders, letters -- anything that documented home repairs and renovations. She shimmied through ceiling hatches and into crawl spaces.
Yocum's conclusion: The 19th-century abolitionist's home, called the White House of Southeast by community residents, should be repainted brown. The neighbors are none too happy.
"The white house can be seen from all over, from various parts of the city. It shines so bright -- it's a symbol," said Linda Greene, who lives across the street from the National Historic Site and is among the residents who are not happy with the next step in the $2 million renovation.
"People give directions according to it. People look up at it and say: 'Wow! For an African American man to have a house like that in those times!' " said Greene, an aide to D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).
The residents of Anacostia take great pride in the landmark east of the river, where Douglass held court and spent his last days. Couples go there for their wedding photos and grandparents take their children's children there to teach African American history, said park officials, and they have heard from many people who do not want the color changed.
Why can't it remain white? The Park Service acknowledges that the house was white when Douglass bought it. But he changed it to his liking, so the Park Service wants to make it historically accurate.
Douglass had it painted a grayish-brown, with dark coffee, cream-colored and blue details, when he made major improvements to the home in the 1890s, Yocum's 236-page historical paint analysis revealed.
It was the fashion of the times to use the newest, muddy-colored paints that catalogs advertised at the time, and pigment meant status then. Colored paint was costly; white paint was cheaper, said Juliet Galonska, the Park Service's site manager for the estate.
"Look at this -- it was marketing, marketing, marketing," she said, flipping through the massive paint analysis to a reproduction of an 1890 advertisement from Sherwin-Williams pushing its latest color collection. "It's just like any homeowner making improvements to a house and putting [the] best face forward."
Douglass's desire to make the sprawling, 15-acre estate then known as Cedar Hill a showpiece is in character with the kind of man he was, said Frederick Douglass IV, his great-great-grandson, who lives in Baltimore.
"He was very conscious of image and status," said Douglass, 59, who often performs as his famous ancestor in historic reenactments. "He was very conscious of his responsibility as one of the leading African American men of his time. He knew he was representing the black middle class."
For years, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) requested funding to restore this symbol of Douglass's place in that middle class, after she toured the home and was dismayed at the peeling paint, fading wallpaper and disrepair. "We were destroying history. . . . We were killing the Frederick Douglass home," she said.
That funding came through in 2003. Until then, work on the home was funded piecemeal, and perhaps the nature of that restoration contributed to the lack of historic accuracy, Yocum said.
The Park Service painted the house white after taking possession of it in 1962. Much of that effort might have been upkeep rather than preservation, said Yocum, who called her work "a very exciting project" and said she "felt very privileged to be there."
She said: "When someone takes over the property, does [upkeep] mean simply keeping it from falling apart? Is that preservation? Or does it mean keeping every detail historically accurate?"
Now that the Park Service has the money for the job, the agency is trying to restore the home to how it looked when Douglass last walked the sprawling grounds. His vest will be hung on a chair just so -- the way a grainy snapshot for probate captured it after his death in 1895.
The makeover also will target wallpaper and interior color from a 1970s renovation. Water damage, buckling floors and windows are being repaired. Officials hope to finish and move all the artifacts back in by late 2006.
The most obvious change will be the exterior color, which Yocum said "is a very emotional issue."
There are also logistics. Galonska said that after the renovation, the Park Service will have to change various brochures, placards, signs and photographs that show the house as white.
Frederick Douglass IV said that a big, white house looks impressive and that he understands the opposition. "But I ask people to hold their judgment. It is a historic site. It should be as close as possible to the way he wanted it," he said. "We can look at it and, finally, see what it looked like through his eyes. This was his personality and it was the way he wanted it."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.