The Latin rock music that Richard Segovia teaches students to play in his basement studio is as loud as his home. The otherwise modest Spanish-style home is essentially one enormous mural, a crowded portrait of long-gone musicians, Segovia’s family members, social activists, various psychedelia, and the odd jungle animal, with colors ranging from jungle green and royal blue at the pavement to a red and yellow sunburst at the ridge.
Segovia has resided in San Francisco’s Mission area since 1963 and considers himself a keeper of the neighborhood’s history, particularly as the origin of Latin rock. (A family friend, Carlos Santana, grew up nearby.) However, the 68-year-old “Mayor of the Mission” is increasingly confronted with a clear depiction of all the color that has been sucked out of the city by consecutive waves of tech-fueled gentrification.
“Every day, I walk around the neighborhood and see all these gray houses,” Segovia adds. “It reminds me of being in a cemetery.”
Vivid color has long been the grammar of San Francisco’s vernacular architecture, from the International Orange hue of the Golden Gate Bridge to the intricately carved and painted façades of the Painted Ladies fronting Alamo Square.
But, increasingly, you’ll notice a dramatic contrast among the colors and gold-leaf embellishments: 125-year-old homes painted in the colors of a nuclear weapon or a dormant cinder cone from the Cold War. Some people in Mission and Haight areas see this phenomena as an erasing of the Latino population or the remaining counterculture. Gray gentrification houses have become a symbol of rich intruders. The influx of riches into core cities is global in scope, but its impacts in San Francisco have been especially noticeable – all the more so given the city’s well-deserved reputation for distinctiveness.
Black or deeper gray accents may be seen on several of these homes. Some have the coloration of a beached humpback whale. Many have crisply rusted pots full of succulents or geometrically demanding horsetail plants that seem like they came right out of a Dwell magazine page, while others have garishly painted doors in the same off-neon hue as athletic clothes.
They’re subtle and modern, according to their supporters, with paint treatments that can withstand a battering without ever appearing filthy. To their detractors, they’re unimaginative, historically inaccurate outliers, the kind of thing that an affluent biotech CEO who wears a gray Patagonia fleece vest every day might appreciate – or, worse, something that realtors recommend to add curb appeal to a potential investment property that no one will ever live in.
“I had some reservations about painting our house gray, because gray is a symbol of gentrification in the Mission,” says Kate Shaw, who lives in a Mission Victorian with her boyfriend Dav Rausch. However, the pair, who are also skilled designers, believe gray was a “jumping off point” for “reimagining the form” of their pre-1900 home.
“Going monochrome may appear to be lazy, but getting those colors just right is a whole other story.” “It’s an art form in and of itself,” she explains during a Facetime tour. “Color draws attention to the shape, not the other way around.”
Shaw continues, “We hired a Latino crew led by a Latino man who was laid off by my company.” “People said, ‘Employ him!'” He’s incredible, and we want to make sure he’s taken care of.’ ‘We’re accustomed to so much more color, and we adore this!’ his staff exclaimed. It was prominently displayed at the top of their website as the achievement they were most proud of.”
The assumption that Victorian dwellings were always multicolored is as much a lie as our modern perception of ancient Roman towns as bone white. Roman structures were adorned brashly – even luridly, by most contemporary standards – as a sort of public development, but San Francisco’s Victorians were likely very drab at initial construction.
“In the beginning, these Victorians didn’t have as many color selections — mainly white or gray in lead paint. “They didn’t choose the trim,” adds architect David Baker, who lives in a gray home himself. “I don’t believe we should take it seriously – it’s just paint,” says the narrator.
But it’s not just paint for Bob Buckter, sometimes known as Dr Color. He’s worked as an independent color consultant on historical buildings in the Bay Area for more than 50 years, estimating that there are around 18,500 of them.
“I talk to people, find out what their taste field is, what they like, what they don’t like, if they’re a wild thang or a conservative thang, if they like dark blue, dark gray, or polychrome, how they’re dressed, how they do their interiors,” he says, sitting in his gray-violet office with aubergine drapes and hand-painted ceiling medallions.
Buckter’s customers often return for a second or third session, and in some circumstances, a fourth. He employs a no-nonsense, give-the-client-what-they-want style, avoiding imposing his own preferences on others. However, since the common outcome is a distinctive combination of hues, a monochromatic, matte exterior would appear to be at odds with his style. Is this merely a matter of personal taste, or is it the mutilation of a priceless redwood treasure?
“Everything.” I’ve spent my whole career attention to the architectural intricacies of historic houses and other sorts of architectural structures, and I’m curious as to why they hired me to do color. “I have to worry about all of that in my design, whether it’s for the market to sell the building or pride of ownership,” Buckter adds. “Excitement comes in small packages in this world, and if I can provide it for people, then I consider myself to have accomplished something.”
Buckter is likely to have influenced the collective taste in a specific way, having counseled on so many homes and gained so much attention that his work has spawned knockoffs. As a result, the advent of the gray Victorian may be seen as a backlash against his style.
“That could be a factor,” Buckter adds. “I believe the fundamental cause is the current tendency toward minimalism and modernity. Some of these folks are sick of the multicolored appearance. Other individuals have observed this tendency, and some others are just riding the wave of it.”
The lack of color irritates some long-time residents, who have always favored San Francisco’s more colorful homes.
“I wish they’d make me the color commissioner for San Francisco,” says artist and photographer Liz Mamorsky, “so people would check with me what colors they use.” “Some individuals attempt to do the right thing by restoring a Victorian, but the colors aren’t quite right. You want the retinal flash that two complementary colors of the same hue produce.”
The gray trend is “heartbreaking,” according to Fred Messbarger, a 15-year Mission resident, who believes that the “beauty of San Francisco is in the Victorians and Edwardians, and the contrast of the houses and the curves and detail – and also the neighbors.” One home might be painted in a completely different color scheme than the rest.”
Messbarger repainted his circa-1870 Italianate house turquoise, navy blue, and white, with gold trim and a neon-green entrance. Everyone in the family got a say, and the results have been overwhelmingly favorable.
“I have people commenting or giving us compliments on numerous occasions when I’m outside gardening or even leaving the house,” Messbarger adds. “That’s great to hear, because deciding what to paint took us five years.”
He continues, “I didn’t think we were going bold.” “All I thought we were doing was bringing color back.” Our kid is to blame for the boldness of the door.”
When a varied collection of people attempts to make a choice, though, gray might emerge.
Eric Carlson shares a condo with a Latino family, a Greek American family, and another single male in a four-unit complex. It was difficult for these very diverse individuals to agree on how to repaint the exterior’s “abysmal light pink with white trim.” Everyone created a list of their top four and two “absolutely nots” after six weeks of looking at samples. What’s the end result? Vellum White trim with Homburg Gray.
Carlson adds, “I would have been fine with a much more expressive color.” “I was also well aware that this would have to be a group decision, and these colors were acceptable.” Do I have feelings for them? No. Is it, however, a vast improvement over what we had before? Compromises are a necessary part of life in the great scheme of things. I figured there wouldn’t be much interest in a historically correct hue from the early 1920s.”
Why does gray appear to be the most popular color if no one truly likes it?
“I think we’ve reached this strange point where slate gray appears to be a popular color, so it’s self-reinforcing,” Carlson adds. “We’re used to the blandness of contemporary architecture’s matte palette. We’re not precisely in the midst of a baroque architectural era.”
A layer of lusterless tungsten gray may be used to muffle more than just the sights for certain realtors. When a luxury real estate business acquired the property next door to Segovia’s and repainted it gray, Segovia tried to flag down the real estate agent and inform him that whoever bought the house would have a rock singer as a neighbor.
“He was deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly So I told myself, ‘I’m going to get even with those jerks.'” During the open house, Segovia positioned his sound system against the wall and blast Metallica.
The real estate business eventually spent $40,000 soundproofing Segovia’s home studio in order to sell it – to someone who paid $750,000 for it and then sold it to the present owner for $1.7 million four years later.
Segovia has been offered $2.5 million in cash for his home so many times that he has threatened legal action against one pushy salesperson.
“I’m not going anywhere.” There’s no way I’m leaving. He replies, “I got my roots.” “I like working with youngsters and teaching them music without expecting anything in return. It’s about me giving back to the community.