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Shades of the Past: The Colors on San Francisco's Outside Reveal the Spirit of Its Inside 

Wednesday, Dec 4 2013

Tell a French person you live in San Francisco and, invariably, you'll be asked if you reside in "une maison bleue adossée à la colline" ("a blue house, against a hill"). Forty years ago, a musician named Maxime LeForestier sang about the eponymous blue house of San Francisco. It's a tune very much of its time, regarding a place very much of its time: "We come there walking, we don't knock/Those who live there, had thrown (away) the key."

You've never heard of LeForestier. You've never heard of "La Maison Bleue." But every last soul in France has; it's apparently their overriding impression of this city — that, soup in a breadbowl, and whatever bestial thing they witnessed on Muni. You probably wouldn't brazenly ask random English people if they all live in a yellow submarine or query random St. Louis residents what noise the trolley makes. And yet, French people ask about la maison bleue. And ask, and ask, and ask.

Sigh. We do live in a blue house, against a hill. God willing, no one's thrown away the key. Not again.

A coterie of international shoeless hippies cohabitating in a free-love, free-rent, and free-of-locks blue home is more an element of the San Francisco of 1973 than 2013. After all, no one's painting homes blue anymore.

Or, at least, no one who listens to Mary Lawlor.

Lawlor is the color marketing manager at San Carlos-based Kelly-Moore Paint Co. and a member of the international Color Marketing Group — making her one of the illuminati of color. A freewheeling lecture on the history of San Francisco paint she delivered to your humble narrator was intriguing; it was certainly more fun than watching the stuff dry.

It turns out that, both physically and metaphysically, you can learn a lot about San Francisco from the paint slapped on its walls.

To start with, paints derived from materials actually mined out of the ground are known as "inorganic," while those fabricated in sterile laboratories are labeled "organic." It would seem the paint industry takes its cues from whomever declared that the most costly and elitist educational institutions in Britain would be called "public schools."

It makes little sense — until you realize that San Franciscans will buy anything labeled "organic."

The sepia-toned pre-quake San Francisco of yore, captured in archival footage of derby-hatted men and parasol-toting women ambling, double-time, in-between roaring streetcars, was not actually sepia-toned. But it was closer than you'd think.

As you'd expect of paint derived from digging into the earth, San Francisco once gravitated toward earth tones. A city built upon wealth gleaned from extracting material from the ground was, itself, the color of material extracted from the ground. The grand homes of the city's ascendent era would be gray, rusty red, or of a mustardy, ochre hue.

The "organic" paints that commandeered the market in the early and mid-20th century were brighter and cleaner than what came before; San Francisco could be swathed in beige- and cream-colored hues even during skim-milk times. But it came with a price: impermanence. Laboratory-derived paints in the Better Living Through Chemistry years didn't stand up to San Francisco's elements nearly as well as the colors adorning San Francisco's first Gilded Age. This was ephemeral décor for an ephemeral time.

And, by the postwar era, that period when progress was measured by how many Victorian homes could be razed in favor of motorways or structures resembling a meat-packing plant, fittingly awful colors ruled the day.

Christmas came early at SF Weekly this year, as Lawlor mailed your humble narrator a sheaf of vintage Kelly-Moore catalogs hailing from a dingier and more garishly colored time. Astoundingly, in the 1960s, responsible people saw fit to put hideous buildings like Fox Plaza on the cover of such catalogs — catalogs full of things they wanted you to buy — and tart up the cover in greens and golds of the sort preferred by Charlie Finley, old women with a fondness for linoleum, or purveyors of Three-Mile Island safety suits.

So, it's in more ways than one that San Francisco manages to find itself confronted with vestiges of its 1960s experience, even as this city has dramatically shifted into darker, unrecognizable shades. The pastiche of pinks and blues and greens and pastels still adorning some of San Francisco's stateliest and most photogenic homes "is not authentic," says Lawlor. This, she continues, was "a drug-induced color palate" reflecting San Francisco's most drug-induced era. The '60s were a reaction against stagnant, turgid, conformist times, and the physical appearance of that movement's epicenter was no accident; perhaps this was a rebellion against the staid establishment for members of the paint industry, too.

Hunter S. Thompson's most famously overquoted quote may have been more literally true than he thought. When you look west, to San Francisco, and "almost see the high water mark," the place where "a high and beautiful wave ... finally broke, and rolled back" you really can see the dazzling colors of a headier age.

That magic energy has long since faded. But its colors still remain, like fossils in the shale.

As in so many tropes, the favored colors of the 1970s recapitulate those of the 1960s — but without the mitigating context. This was just bad taste for the sake of bad taste: tangerine, fire red, bright olive, and, yes, electric blue. Kelly-Moore's big-sellers of the 1980s seem to be specially chosen to match gratuitous faux-wood paneling and outfits of the sort favored by Nancy Reagan. These were dire times.

Today, Lawlor boasts, her company operates proprietary software it can use to lay on exterior color options when provided with digital images of a structure: A high-tech solution for a high-tech city. And the favored color options for today's San Francisco?

Earth tones. As LeForestier might put it, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Three years ago, an enterprising French-born Chronicle writer named Alexis Venifleis tracked down la maison bleue on 18th Street between Sanchez and Church, ending four decades of Gallic house-hunting. If the structure in 1973 epitomized that age of the city, so, in its way, does the current version. Gone are the wandering French hippies homing in on a blue beacon and walking, uninvited, through the front door. Instead, a family lives there, and, presumably, they lock the front door --- and the wrought-iron gate. The blue house is no longer blue, by the way. It's now a greenish color. An earth tone.

Per the city, the land and property are currently assessed at $2.4 million.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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