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The house at 1478 Page St. is so shiny, you can almost see a reflection of yourself in its glossy redwood siding. Even at night, the exterior gleams under floodlights. Perhaps that's why the Haight-Ashbury Victorian has been vandalized so often recently: Somebody didn't like what he saw in the reflection. More likely, he saw a reflection of somebody he liked even less -- the owner.
For the past three years, Mike Farr, a 43-year-old former dot-commer, has been remodeling his house to resemble something like a cross between a maharajah's summer palace and Al Capone's yacht. He had lived on a boat for eight years, and wanted to make the house appear seaworthy. To get the look he wanted, Farr coated the natural wood exterior with a thick epoxy traditionally used on aircraft. He painted the trim a crisp white, and ordered flashing -- pieces of metal fastened to the joints of the outside wall -- made of copper. Originally, he tried to turn the metal an aged green by spraying it with seawater every day, but he gave up and left it bright orange instead. His outdoor staircase is being constructed by carvers in the ancient quarries of Makrana, India, which supplied the marble for the Taj Mahal. At the moment, Indian craftsmen are carving a marble newel post with Farr's initials in Hindi characters.
Farr, a schlumpy-looking guy who wears a worn Polarfleece jacket and a baseball cap, built a career as a software engineer before cashing out in 2001 via the sale of his technology company. He bought 1478 Page, which was constructed in 1899 next to an identical unit by the Magnin family of department store fame. (A secret passageway connects the two houses, but is now walled shut.) Farr began his huge remodeling job, on which he's spared no expense or flight of fancy, as a first step toward his dream of becoming an artist.
"I don't think I'll be able to stop," Farr gushed one afternoon while giving a tour of the inside of his house, where two contractors were gilding the raised border design on his dining room ceiling with tiny brushes. "I'll make mosaics and start carving marble. I'm going to do a fresco. I might do my floor in onyx, so light comes through but it's not transparent."
To explain his project to passers-by, he has constructed a free-standing information podium on the sidewalk, in which he refers to himself in the third person. "He was steered away from his first choice of a career as an artist by practical parents," it reads. "Retiring early ... he finally had a chance to begin his first art project."
But dark forces are out to destroy Farr's chrysalis. A few months ago, a brick went through his window. He put up a sign on the cracked pane that says, "Hate is not the answer." Last week, a big "Z" appeared on the front of his house in indelible black marker, next to an "A" etched in the varnish with, perhaps, a key. Farr and his immediate neighbors say they don't know who did it, or what "ZA" stands for. They do know, however, that Farr's house has enemies.
Many months before last year's mayoral election, Farr hung a large Gavin Newsom sign in his window -- one of the few pro-Newsom signs to be seen in the liberal supervisorial district represented by Newsom's challenger, Matt Gonzalez. Then Farr committed the ultimate sin: He removed an old tree to put in a garage and driveway. The move sparked protest from some of the neighbors, particularly a part-time teacher named Katherine Roberts, who circulated a petition to stop the tree's removal. Farr donated time and money, through Friends of the Urban Forest, to plant 30 new trees in the Haight, but his efforts didn't impress the petitioners.
"That tree formed a canopy, and softened that portion of the block," says Roberts of the trunk Farr removed. "[Page] was a beautiful tree-lined street, and on the bike route. ... How long is it going to take those saplings he planted to grow to that size?"
Although Roberts -- who has since started an advocacy group called Trees Not Cars, which mobilized protests against the Golden Gate Park garage -- says she had nothing to do with the vandalism, and doesn't know who did, she isn't surprised. "Hundreds of his neighbors signed that petition. That's our tree," she insists. More significant, perhaps, Roberts also objects to Farr's "ugly" varnish job. "He's completely ignoring the historic quality of the house," she says.
Farr counters by pointing out that the house was on the verge of crumbling when he bought it; and at least some of his neighbors agree that his renovations are a marked improvement. "I saw what it used to be like before he bought it, and it's absolutely beautiful now," says his next-door neighbor Misty Degraw. Moreover, Farr adds, the Painted Ladies were at first considered heretical, too, because Victorian houses were not traditionally painted a rainbow of colors.
Will the annals of architectural history recognize Mike Farr as a man ahead of his time, a man who recognized you could coat a house in airplane finish? His neighbors have plenty of opinions.