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The Dark Art of the Painted Lady

Throughout the city, florid gingerbread houses are taking a monochrome turn.

Cole Valley and Noe Valley

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Lower Haight and Castro

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Mission and Noe Valley

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Noe Valley and Marina

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Mission and Russian Hill

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Mission and Bernal Heights

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Lower Haight and Cole Valley

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Mission

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Douglas Burnham of the design firm Envelope A+D is locally considered the godfather of dark Victorians. These days, you’ll spot them sporadically around the Bay—in Noe Valley, Jingletown, lower Pacific Heights—imposing obsidian beauties popping against their macaron-hued neighbors. But Burnham was the among the first to overthrow the prevailing Painted Lady, having painted the exterior of client Claire Bigbie’s traditional Clipper Street home a uniform blackish blue over five years ago. The original intent wasn’t to make the facade stand out (the Victorian’s whimsical trim “looked like roasted marshmallows on a stick,” Burnham remembers), but to disguise the molding with an inky finish, highlighting the texture instead.

The idea came from the dark houses of Amsterdam, which Burnham had recently visited. “It’s not some freaky, haunted house kind of thing there,” Burnham says. “It’s classic and proper, like a tuxedo.” Since then, the dark lady of Clipper Street has spawned dozens of jet-black imitators, not only Victorians, but also storefronts, museums, restaurants, and condos. Within the local design community, there’s ongoing debate as to which monochrome hue will emerge as the new black—forest green, dark teal, and midnight blue are top bets. “I always envied Claire’s black gingerbread house, but now that it’s turning more mainstream, I’m thinking we’ll paint ours monochrome fuchsia,” says interior designer Alison Damonte. “Don’t tell my neighbors.” After all, the Gothic look “is like any great song,” says Burnham. “You hear it too much, you get sick of it.”

 

Why go to the dark side?

Lowering costs
“It used to be that people were using 7 to 12 paint colors to make their houses look like wedding cakes,” says professional painter Jill French, cofounder of Heather and French painting. At $65 to $105 a gallon for high-end exterior paint, that gets pricey. “Now, we’re seeing more home owners sticking with one or two colors.”

Standing out
“In a row of pastels, a dark house pops,” says architect Owen Kennerly of Kennerly Architecture & Planning. The trend coincides with a wave of younger Victorian buyers, says interior designer Melissa Guerrero. “They want to do something a little shocking.”

Camouflaging fussy trim
“My house is kind of a shack Victorian,” jokes Damonte of her periwinkle—“not by choice!”—Bernal Heights home. “If we paint it black, everything we don’t like will go away.” Going monochrome allows unloved details to blend in.

Letting the light work for you
On north-facing homes, “warm and pastel colors can look feckless” without sunlight to animate them, says Kennerly. A darker color—particularly one with some blue in it—will look rich even without direct light.

Minimizing spring cleaning
In the city, grime builds up on the edges of Victorian trim. “When the rain comes, it oozes down the house in sheets of gray and catches in the caulking joints,” says Kennerly. That film is more obvious against pastel paint.

Emphasizing texture
“Going monochrome lets the three-dimensional quality of the Victorian ornamentation speak for itself,” says architect Casper Mork-Ulnes of Mork Ulnes architects. The trim comes together as a cohesive tapestry rather than candy-colored fragments.

Playing down size
Bigger homes can seem less monolithic by going dark, says Guerrero. (Conversely, bright paint colors can make small homes appear larger.) Window glass looks dark from the outside, so a dark paint color unifies the volume of a house by downplaying contrast with the window openings.

Projecting style
“Monochrome black paint has a certain elegance and sophistication, like an Armani suit,” says Kennerly. Many owners also see it as an expression of their own modernist sensibilities. “It’s kind of like pets—people want their house to reflect who they are,” says Burnham. “And in San Francisco, a lot of people wear all black.”

 


House Swap: Five steps to transition from safe to striking.

1. Do your homework
Burnham bought a can of black paint and a can of the darkest blue available, then mixed five versions in a spectrum. He and Bigbie had a custom formula made from the winning sample. Mork-Ulnes photoshopped a picture of his house with a series of gray-blue hues to choose the right one.

2. Invest in prep
Proper priming and sanding are key. “Dark paint colors show a lot of flaws and make the wood more susceptible to blistering,” says French. Use elastomeric caulk and epoxy filler, especially on south-facing exposures, to protect the wood from expanding and contracting when it heats up.

3. Consider the pigment
Pick a paint with a high pigment ratio, which indicates a greater volume of solids. Benjamin Moore’s aura exterior paints are a designer-recommended choice for quality and longevity. The more sheen, the better—it gives the home better UV protection than a matte color. Stay away from hues on the yellow end of the spectrum, which are prone to fading.

4. Seal the color
Top the paint with at least two finish coats to protect the color and the underlying wood.

5. Delay the fade
A lighter color lasts 30 percent longer than a darker color—even more in sunny neighborhoods. (“We should start a colony of tiny black matchbox houses in the foggy Outer Richmond,” jokes Burnham.) Benjamin Moore recommends retouching paint on a southern exposure every three to five years—Bigbie repainted the south side of her clipper street residence after four. Annual power-washing can stretch the time between repaintings.

 

How much would it cost to repaint one of Alamo Square’s famed Painted Ladies dark?
$15,000 to $25,000, says Philip Storey of RedHill Painting, which specializes in restoring historic Victorians. “That quote will depend on the condition of the home and its orientation to the sun,” he says. Some budget-minded clients opt to paint only the front facade, rather than the entire house. On a Painted Lady, that would run around $8,000 to $12,000.

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco.

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