Maybe 25 years ago the neighborhood was in an uproar, which was not at all unusual. We had many more uproars back then. Growing pains, you might say.
The building on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue, where chef Spike’s Mexican joint is now serving tortillas, was a record store, part of a chain that no one seems to remember the name of. It was plain faced and not particularly noticeable in a row of red brick, until one day it was ablaze in iridescent Caribbean blue, with little sparkles catching the sun like a sprinkling of heavy metal.
Down the block, Mary screamed. Her bathroom faced the street and the sun’s glare showered a blast of blue glitter over her ablutions. “I looked like I’d drowned,” she said, or words to that effect.
She protested here. She protested there. Meetings were held. Every community organization weighed in. The record store management was called. They were quite nice, if a little befuddled. They didn’t expect such a clamor from Capitol Hill.
It seems the chain had constant difficulties with the Georgetown Restoration Society over changes to their Georgetown location. With no regulations on paint color, they painted the façade of the building in the most garish paint color they could find. They had a good laugh and sent the leftover paint here.
The upshot was, apologies were extended, the building was repainted something innocuous, and Mary was able to look into her bathroom mirror again.
Should that be a warning about painting your home anything other than… oh, grey for instance?
Painting the Outside
Kristen Hartke and Rick Weber’s house on Massachusetts Avenue was a nice, subdued grey inside and out when they bought it, 25 years ago. An 1860s farmhouse, wood-framed with a big front porch, and lots of detail, she felt it demanded color.
A freelance writer, Kristen’s articles are frequently featured in the Washington Post’s Food section; she is also a fine arts graduate from the Corcoran School of Art. She knows color.
Inspired by daughter Maddie’s favorite book, Arthur the Aardvark, she had the house painted buttery yellow with lavender trim and a deep purple front door. Ten years later it was repainted pea green, which was even jollier with the purple trim. More Barney, said Maddie. That was not intentional.
“I loved it,” she said. “It was cheerful and happy. People would stop and photograph it all the time, asking if we were from San Francisco. We just like color.”
Wood houses with their fanciful trim are fairly rare on the Hill, and they do give you more scope for paint play. The large expanse of flat brick on most of our homes can be tricky. Depending on the direction of the light, how the sun hits your house, a bold color can be delightful – or garish.
“A north facing house can be more vibrant,” said Kristen. “We faced northwest. If we were facing south, it would have hurt your eyes.” It is also back from the avenue, nestled in trees and greens, which mute the impact.
Even if you’re wary of offense, don’t go with the lightest colors on the paint charts, which go from the palest to the deepest saturation of each shade. While that pale shade might feel safe, “you’ll have something that’s faded by the time it’s on the wall,” she said.
Then, pick out details. “Pretty much every house has some window detail to highlight,” she said. “And pick out a front door color that is really visible and doesn’t fade into the house.
Just make it interesting. “Our neighbors did shades of ochre,” she said. Still in the yellow family, and accented with dark olive, “our two houses complemented each other. They were influenced by us but did their own spin on it.
“People are so worried about resale, she said. “If I’m living in a house it should be one I like, not one that will satisfy a future buyer. When you walk up the front steps every day it should make you happy.”
Kristen and Rick sold the house just over a year ago and moved to Manhattan. Wild colors still flying, it sold for more than the asking price the week it hit the market.
Each year an organization called The Pantone Institute selects the Color of the Year. While various paint companies have their choices as well, Pantone is the macher; the power dictating the colors you see in everything from blenders to sheets and towels.
The chosen color is intended to express the zeitgeist, the mood of the times. In years past, the Covid years, the colors were moodier shades of purple, green, grey and yellow.
This year, the chosen one is Viva Magenta, a blast of pink that conjures psychedelics, tropical drinks, and sunsets off Key West. This is definitely not your Barbie pink.
A radical departure, albeit one a bit difficult to live with in large doses, it’s joyous, playful, and probably best left to accents. Towels might be jolly.
But it does scream that strong color is here, and it feels great.
Catching that zeitgeist
Pat Spirer has lived on the corner of South Carolina and Kentucky Avenue for more than 40 years. Retired from the Department of Agriculture, she travels, gardens, cooks, and paints.
Until recently, the walls of her living room, dining room, and foyer were a delicious pale peach. A lovely shade, particularly in spring, with huge trees surrounding the house, windows framing her gardens. Girly in a good way, romantic, perfect for reading Colette beside the fire.
Like Kristen, Pat is an artist. She has a fine arts degree from Michigan State, and her home is filled with her own paintings, and those of artists she adores, including four large serigraphs by Native American artist John Nieto. Flamboyantly colored, slightly abstract, three are of a coyote. A fourth is a dozing man draped in a brilliant red serape.
While the tendency when dealing with art is to keep background colors tame, even white, Pat went bold. Her living room and dining room are a blast of chrome yellow, with a slight greenish cast depending on the light. The hallway is a fabulous, rich, deep purple. Purple and yellow are accents in the painting, so the walls work with them, like huge mattes around the frames.
The art leaps off the walls, looking gloriously fresh, vibrating against a magical backdrop.
She continued the transformation upstairs, painting her bedroom and bath a similar shade of yellow, “it’s so cheerful to wake up to,” she said. The hall bath, long hung with a tiny flowered paper in teal, rose, purple and green, got a purple ceiling that draws the eye up to a skylight that frames a patch of sky, nature’s own artwork.
It’s Only Paint
While Pat employed painters to transform her house, unless your walls are a mess of cracks and need a pro to do major patching, painting your own home is not difficult. I’ve painted every room in mine, at least once. Kitchen cabinets, too. (Wallpaper is another story, and don’t do it with your spouse if you want to stay married). There are plenty of on-line tutorials and books, and advice on using flat, satin, or gloss formulations.
The biggest problem I’ve encountered is the ceiling edge, which is just too finicky to bother with. So paint the ceiling, while you’re at it. Colored ceilings are totally on trend, as they say. The space feels wrapped in color.
Paint’s not cheap. But even the most costly “designer” colors can be replicated in lower cost brands – just bring a swatch to the paint counter. It’s redecorating in a can.
If you’re feeling timid, invest in a few sample jars, and paint a nice big patch here and there in the room. Or paint an accent wall and live with it for a bit. Check how the light changes the color from dawn to night. Hate it? Get another color. Love it? Go to it.
After all, it’s only paint.
Stephanie Cavanaugh writes a weekly gardening column, of sorts, for the newsy website mylittlebird.com