An Architectural Rainbow: SF’s Colorist Movement

The queer history of San Francisco’s vibrant and colorful Victorians

One block from Castro Street, in the shadow of the Gilbert Baker Memorial Rainbow Flag, a 132-year old house has been reinvigorated with vibrant strokes of fresh paint. The San Francisco Stick/Eastlake style house is one of the city’s most recently repainted Victorians, featuring eggplant, lavender, Arizona peach, smoked salmon, and gold leaf. While the house’s coat may be just two months old, the new infusion of color is part of a long tradition of celebrating San Francisco’s unique architecture and proud, expressive culture.

“We were interested in making a bold statement that recognized the history of the house and the history of the community,” says Craig Davini, who owns the two-unit house with his husband Ashley McCumber and co-owner Jeffrey Plocher. 

The Castro, and its rows of Victorians, weren’t always so colorful. Restoring the city’s supercentenarian houses and bringing out the intricate details of their woodwork with paint has been an ongoing, citywide project since the 1960s that is inseparable from the history of San Francisco’s LGBTQ community.

Like any San Francisco story, it’s a complicated one, clouded by racism, homophobia, and big money. But in the end, the preservation and beautification of the city’s Victorians has become a unifying force. These “painted ladies” — not just on postcard row, but scattered throughout the city — have become one of San Francisco’s most recognizable symbols, showcasing its history and culture for all to see.

From Preservation to Celebration

For most of their lifetimes, San Francisco’s Victorian houses were underappreciated. Even as they were being constructed, from the 1860s until the 1906 earthquake, most architecture critics viewed them as a garish mélange of styles, and a vulgar expression of the city’s diverse new money class. Then, during World War II, as migrants descended on the city to work in the defense industry, many Victorians, already considered old, became overcrowded boarding houses. Eventually these structures fell into disrepair. Their wooden ornaments, including ionic columns and intricate window trim, were stripped from their facades or else painted battleship gray with surplus Navy paint.

By mid-century, many of San Francisco’s Victorian neighborhoods were considered part of the “inner city,” from which wealthier whites fled en masse in the 1950s. Residents who remained were primarily low-income minorities: African Americans in the Fillmore, Hayes Valley, and the Haight; Japanese in Japantown; Filipinos in SoMa; Latinos in the Mission. (The Castro, then called Eureka Valley, was largely Irish and Italian.) As in other major cities, these underprivileged neighborhoods became targets for urban renewal and freeway construction from the 1950s through ’70s. SoMa and the Fillmore were particularly hard-hit, as thousands were displaced to make way for the Geary Expressway, the Moscone Center, and some low-income housing developments. 

“Many hundreds of Victorian structures over many square blocks of the city were removed and completely demolished, which had a tremendously negative effect not just on the architectural heritage of San Francisco, but on the African American community, the Filipino American community,” says Rob Thomson, president of the Victorian Alliance, a preservation society founded in the 1970s.

Groups like the Victorian Alliance, which has always included a significant LGBTQ membership, Thomson says, worked alongside neighborhood activists to halt numerous other urban renewal plans. San Francisco’s Victorians may have been saved, but they didn’t become iconic until a populist artistic campaign known as the Colorist movement turned those drab old houses into painted ladies — one façade at a time.

Gold, lilac and white accents on a Victorian “Colorist” home at 36 Collingwood St. in the Castro on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Weekly)

“A new generation of homeowners brought a new sensibility to their homes,” says Michael Larsen, who together with his wife Elizabeth Pomada, coined the term “painted ladies” and wrote multiple books on the subject. “They looked at houses as a canvas, which they could color in any way they want.”

That new generation was certainly influenced by the 1960s counterculture and shifting sensibilities, especially pronounced in San Francisco, that promoted self-expression. For at least some homeowners, LSD likely played a role. One of the first colorful Victorians to gain widespread media attention was the Psychedelic House or Rainbow House at 908 Steiner St., which during the late 1960s was a continuously evolving work of art by Maija Peeples-Bright and her peers in the local Nut Art and Funk Art movements.

But psychedelics weren’t the only thing inspiring people to beautify their Victorian homes. “I think a lot of it has to do with people giving back to the city that had given them a safe place to be, a beautiful environment to live in, a community to celebrate with and be themselves with,” Thomson says of the Victorian revival.

The 1960s and ’70s saw waves of newcomers who were specifically attracted to San Francisco’s tolerant culture, many of them gay. “There would’ve been a good number of gay men whose inclination to pour themselves and their creative energies into rehabilitating a rundown old Victorian would’ve been propelled in part by a sense of this being a very special place,” says Will Fellows, author of A Passion to Preserve, a book about the prominent role gay men have played in architectural preservation across America.

One of the subjects of Fellows’ book is the late Richard Reutlinger, who was part of a community of gay preservationists who were instrumental in saving the Alamo Square neighborhood from urban renewal. According to Reutlinger, he and his fellow preservationists recognized the beauty of these houses precisely because they were outsiders. “If a bunch of auslanders like myself hadn’t moved into San Francisco, none of this would be left,” Reutlinger told Fellows. “Native San Franciscans didn’t care.”

Eventually, though, the preservation and beautification ethic spread to all corners of the city. A cottage industry grew out of catering to the demands of homeowners who wanted to bring out the best in their Victorians. Color consultants like Butch Kardum, Jill Pilaroscia, Bruce Nelson, and Bob Buckter — who also goes by “Dr. Color” — collectively painted tens of thousands of structures in San Francisco, pushing their clients to go as bright and as bold as possible.

‘Pioneers or Block-Busters’

As the ’70s wore on, San Francisco’s Victorians went from being seen as historically significant, to some of the hottest real estate in town. Between 1973 and 1976, the value of “vintage” houses in the city quintupled, according to The Victorian Style by Randolph Delehanty and Richard Sexton. Also in 1976, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey of San Francisco’s Victorian houses, formally signifying their historical and cultural significance.

As in previous gold rushes, San Franciscans struck upon a limited resource. Once the city fell head over heels for its Victorians, the value of the 13,000 or so that remained had nowhere to go but up. The beneficiaries were seldom low-income communities of color, where much of the Victorian housing stock had been demolished, and those houses that remained required capital-intensive rehabilitation.

Gay men, who played such a prominent role in saving and refurbishing the Victorians when they were out of fashion, were now blamed for the consequences.

“In the 1970s, homosexuals moved into black and working-class parts of the city, where they were perceived as pioneers or as block-busters, depending,” wrote Richard Rodriguez in “Late Victorians,” his wide-ranging essay on gay San Francisco during the AIDS crisis. “One heard the complaint, often enough, that gay men were as promiscuous with their capital as otherwise, buying, fixing up, then selling and moving on.”

Newspaper reports on this early form of gentrification from the late 1970s are rife with tension. In the Inner Mission, or “Outer Castro,” as the Examiner called it, activists stenciled “Stop White Gay Racism” on the sidewalks. In the Lower Haight, where gay residents were used to routinely being addressed with slurs, a gay speculator named Donald Lipper told the Chronicle, “Why the hell should this gem of a city be given over to welfare blacks? Put them in Idaho, or at least Oakland.”

Virulent racism mingled with vile homophobia. “As the homosexuals have done over old Victorians they have not only raised rents but brought their own cultural values,” Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe wrote in 1979. The backlash to this “homosexual invasion,” according to McCabe, culminated in Dan White’s assassination of pioneering gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. “To a disturbing number of people around here,” McCabe wrote, “Dan White is a hero.”

Even after the assassination of Harvey Milk, and the subsequent AIDS crisis, San Francisco’s LGBTQ community remained deeply rooted in the Castro and surrounding neighborhoods, even as many lower-income gays and lesbians were priced out. The same couldn’t be said for other communities in other Victorian neighborhoods.

Jimmy Fails, the protagonist and star of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, spends his time fixing up the Fillmore Victorian that his family was priced out of when he was a child. Jimmy’s story is a quintessentially Black one, representing the experience of a community that has undergone mass displacement from San Francisco. But the way Jimmy loves his house — fixing it, painting it, learning about its history and sharing it with his friends and neighbors — is universally San Franciscan. No other city could play host to such a poignant love story between human and house.

“You have the classic story of the three-story, six-bedroom Victorian that somebody could have gotten in 1970 for $50,000 and is now worth $6 million,” says Thomson, echoing a narrative in The Last Black Man. “What does that mean? What do we do about that? Is that something to be celebrated or something to be horrified by, or somewhere in between?”

Stay Beautiful, San Francisco

What it means today is that most San Franciscans can only hope to experience these houses from the outside. Their facades are the backdrops for the ever-active streets, even if their interiors are accessible only to the fortunate few. No matter how much they’re worth, or who lives in them, these houses remain keepers of the city’s history, each fresh coat of paint a new chapter in a long and convoluted story that defies simple narratives. 

Nor is it simple — or cheap — to keep these 19th century ladies in tip-top shape. Nita Riccardi, a house painter and color consultant who carries on the tradition of the Colorist movement, says that a fine paint job is just one part of keeping these old houses healthy and strong.

“There’s a lot more to restoring historic properties that people don’t think about,” she says. While Riccardi takes care of the color scheme, she turns to her artist guild, Bay Area Artistic License, a collective of specialists in architectural restoration including painters, carpenters, mosaic and wallpaper artists, and glaziers, for the many other aspects of restoring a Victorian house. 

A Victorian “Colorist” home at 36 Collingwood St. in the Castro on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Weekly)

Neither Riccardi nor her mentor, Dr. Color, are fans of the gray house trend in the city, which is part of the global turn towards minimalist aesthetics, and seen by many San Franciscans as a sign of gentrification. But both acknowledge that popular tastes, which spurned Victorians for decades before finally embracing them, are cyclical. Riccardi thinks bright colors “will come back again. It’s just like fashion. Bell bottoms were in in the ’70s, then they came back in the ’90s, and now they’re out again.” 

Of course, that doesn’t stop Riccardi from doing what she can to keep the city colorful. “We like to paint as many colors as they’ll let us get away with,” she says of her clients. “We kind of work ’em a little bit. They tell us they like blue, we come back with three blues. And then we say purple goes with blue, how about purple?”

When he worked with Riccardi, Davini was able to limit his Castro home to six colors. “We wanted something bold and dynamic but not too carousel,” he says. Ultimately, Davini, McCumber, and Plocher chose purple for their house “to make a pride statement,” Davini said. “When you walk out of Harvey Milk Plaza, it’s one of the first things you see.”

With this year’s official Pride celebration gone virtual, there will be a lot fewer people in the streets decked out in rainbow. But if you go for a walk, or climb up a hill, there will still be plenty of painted ladies to see, standing resolute and proud, watching the city transform around them.

Tags: , , ,

Related Stories