‘It’s like a cemetery’: the trend turning San Francisco’s colorful houses ‘gentrification gray’

Richard Segovia’s house is as loud as the Latin rock music he teaches children to play in his basement studio. With colors ranging from jungle green and royal blue at the pavement to a red and yellow sunburst at the ridge, 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.

Segovia has lived in San Francisco’s Mission district since 1963, and he sees himself as a custodian of the neighborhood’s culture, specifically as the birthplace of Latin rock. (Carlos Santana, a family friend, grew up nearby.) But increasingly the 68-year old “Mayor of the Mission” finds himself face to face with a stark representation of all the color that has been bled out of the city over successive waves of tech-fueled gentrification.

“I walk the neighborhood every day and I see all these gray houses,” Segovia says. “It’s like being in a cemetery.”

From the Golden Gate Bridge’s International Orange hue to the elaborately carved and painted façades of the Painted Ladies fronting Alamo Square, vivid color has long been the grammar of San Francisco’s vernacular architecture.

But more and more, amid the pastels and the gold-leaf embellishments, you see a striking juxtaposition: 125-year-old houses painted in the tones of a cold war-era nuclear warhead or a dormant cinder cone. In neighborhoods like the Mission and the Haight, this phenomenon reads to some residents as an erasure of the Latino community or of the lingering counterculture. Gentrification gray homes have become a totem of affluent interlopers. The rush of wealth into central cities is global in scale, but its effects in San Francisco have been particularly pronounced – all the more so because of the city’s famously high opinion of its own uniqueness.

Some of these houses have accents in black or darker gray. Some are entirely the hue of a beached humpback whale. Many have the crisply oxidized planters full of succulents or geometrically rigorous horsetail plants straight out of a Dwell magazine spread, while others display garishly painted doors in the same off-neon palette as athleisure apparel.

To their proponents, they’re understated and contemporary, with paint jobs that will take a beating without ever looking dirty. To their detractors, they’re unimaginative, historically inaccurate aberrations, the kind of thing that an affluent biotech CEO who wears a gray Patagonia fleece vest every single day might appreciate – or worse, something realtors urge to lend curb appeal to a potential investment property that no one may ever even live in.

“I had some concerns about painting our house gray, when that is a symbol of gentrification in the Mission,” says Kate Shaw, who lives with her partner Dav Rausch in a Mission Victorian they purchased in 2012. But the couple, a professional designer and a designer by hobby, say that gray was a “jumping off point” to “reimagine the form” of their pre-1900 house.

“Going toward the monochrome could be interpreted as lazy, but getting those colors right is its own thing. It’s an art in and of itself,” she says, during a tour via Facetime. “Color emphasizes the shape, and not the other way around.”

“We hired a Latino crew led by a man who was Latino, who got laid off by my company,” Shaw adds. “People were like, ‘Employ him! He’s amazing, and we want to make sure he’s looked after and cared for.’ His crew was like, ‘We’re used to so much more color, and we love this!’ They put it at the top of their web page, as the thing they were most proud of.”

The idea that Victorian houses were traditionally polychromatic is as much a myth as our contemporary conception of ancient Roman cities as bone white. As a form of civic improvement, Roman buildings were decorated brashly – even luridly, by most modern standards – whereas San Francisco’s Victorians were likely relatively drab at first construction.

“When these Victorians started out, they didn’t have as many options in colors – typically white or gray, in lead paint. They didn’t pick out the trim,” says architect David Baker, himself an occupant of a gray house. “I don’t think we should take it seriously – it’s just paint.”

But for Bob Buckter, known as Dr Color, it’s anything but just paint. For more than 50 years, he’s worked as an independent color consultant on historical buildings in the Bay Area – some 18,500 by his count.

“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 or 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 ceiling medallions he painted by hand.

Many of Buckter’s clients come back for a second or third treatment – in a few cases, even a fourth. He takes a straightforward, give-the-client-what-they-want approach, striving not to impose his own tastes on people. But the usual result is a uniquely harmonious blend of colors, so a monochrome, matte exterior would seem antithetical to his practice. Is that simply people’s taste preference, or the mutilation of an irreplaceable treasure built of old-growth redwood?

“All of that. I’ve spent my life attending to the architectural details of historic homes and other types of architectural things and I want to find out the purpose of their having me come in and do color. Whether it’s for the market to sell the building or pride of ownership, I have to worry about all that in my design,” Buckter says.“Excitement is in small quantities in this world, and if I can provide excitement for people, then I think I’ve done something.”

Having consulted on so many houses, and gotten enough attention that his work has given rise to copycat jobs, it’s likely that Buckter has shifted the collective taste in a certain direction. Consequently, the rise of the gray Victorian could be a reaction against his aesthetic.

“That may be part of it,” Buckter says. “I think the main reason is a trend toward simplicity and being modern. They’re tired of the polychrome look, some of these people. This trend has been noticed by other people and some people are just going on the wave of that trend.”

The absence of color rankles some longtime residents whose love of San Francisco’s more riotous houses has never wavered.

“I wish they would make me the color commissioner for San Francisco, so people would check with me what colors they use,” says artist and photographer Liz Mamorsky. “Some people try to do a good thing and restore a Victorian, but they don’t get the colors quite right. You want that retinal flash you get by two complements of the same hue.”

Fred Messbarger, a 15-year Mission homeowner, calls the gray trend “heartbreaking” and said that the “beauty of San Francisco is in the Victorians and Edwardians, and the contrast of the houses and the curves and the detail – and also the neighbors. One house could be totally different colors from the others.”

Messbarger had his circa-1870 Italianate home repainted turquoise, navy blue, and white, with gold detail and a neon-green door. Everyone in the family had input, and the response has been positive.

“When I’m outside gardening or even leaving the house, on numerous occasions I have people commenting or giving us compliments,” Messbarger says. “It’s nice to hear, because it took us five years to decide what to paint.”

“I didn’t think we were going bold,” he adds. “I just thought we were bringing color back. The door is bold, but that’s our son’s fault.”

But sometimes, gray is what happens when a diverse group tries to make a decision.

Eric Carlson owns a condo in a four-unit building, occupying the space with a Latino family, a Greek American family, and another single man. When it came time to repaint the exterior’s “abysmal light pink with white trim”, these very different people found it challenging to agree. After six weeks of looking at swatches, everyone made lists of their top four and their two “absolutely nots”. The result? Homburg Gray, with a Vellum White trim.

“I would have been OK with a much more expressive color,” Carlson says. “I was also well aware that this was going to have to be a consensus, and these were acceptable colors. Do I love them? No. But does it look a lot better than what we had before? In the grand scheme of things, life is about compromises. I knew that there was not going to be an appetite for a historically accurate color from the early ’20s.”

If no one really loves it, why does gray seem to predominate?

“I think we’re in this weird place where this slate gray looks like a popular color, so it’s self-reinforcing,” Carlson says. “We’re attuned to this matte palette of modern architecture, and it’s bland. We’re not exactly in a baroque period of architecture.”

For some realtors, a coat of lusterless tungsten gray can be about muting more than just the visuals. When a luxury real estate company bought the house next door to Segovia’s and repainted it gray, Segovia attempted to flag down the real estate agent and let him know that whoever eventually bought the house would have a rock musician for a neighbor.

“He wouldn’t pay attention to me. So I said, ‘I’ll get even with those suckers.’” Segovia placed his speaker system against the wall and blasted Metallica during the open house.

Eventually, the real estate company spent $40,000 to soundproof Segovia’s home studio so they could unload their property – to people who paid $750,000 and sold it to the current owner four years later for $1.7m.

Segovia has been offered $2.5m in cash for his house so many times that he threatened one aggressive agent with legal action.

“I’m not moving. I’m not going anywhere. I got my roots,” he says. “Working with children, teaching kids music without asking for any money. It’s about me giving back to the community. Latin rock music was created here in the Mission district, so it’s about me keeping that alive.”

As for the advancing creep of gray, “There should be a law,” Segovia says. “Enough is enough. It’s penitentiary colors to me.”

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