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Rainbow Victorians and the Colorist Era in San Francisco

Color versus black: A pair of houses on Delmar Street in Ashbury Heights demonstrate how colorful Victorians remain in San Francisco, alongside a growing number of darker painted homes.

by Kerri Young

Today, people come from all over the world to enjoy San Francisco’s exuberant Victorian architectural heritage in well-visited neighborhoods like the Haight-Ashbury and Alamo Square (though the recent spread of COVID-19 has put a hold on out-of-town visits). While many Victorian homes in these popular districts remain colorful, there is a growing trend in San Francisco and beyond that is turning these houses gray.

In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, San Francisco Victorians received global attention for their extroverted, expressive coats of paint. Houses in all the colors of the rainbow reflected a new, expressive generation of San Franciscans coming of age and moving in. Today, we’re highlighting a few examples of homes from this period.

908 Steiner Street, between Fulton and McAllister Streets, in July 1974. Built in 1888 by R. O. Chandler. Architects, Schmidt & Shea. Multi-colored portico of Victorian with peacock head added to fan element in gable. Photo by Judith Lynch, OpenSFHistory / wnp25.11065.jpg.

Local homeowners and artists began experimenting with bright color design on Victorian exteriors, primarily in the Haight and Western Addition neighborhoods, in the 1960s. Maija Peeples-Bright (also known as Maija Gegeris), a Latvian-born artist who moved to Northern California at an early age, was at the epicenter of this new “colorist movement” with her rainbow-painted, highly-ornamented Stick-style Victorian townhouse at 908 Steiner Street. Maija used every color made by Dutch Boy Paints on the exterior of the house, originally built in 1888. At the height of its glory, numerous publications wrote about her house, including the Saturday Evening Post and San Francisco Chronicle in 1968, and Progressive Architecture in 1969.

Said Maija’s husband, David Zack: “Maija and I are very unbeige. She has dedicated her life to painting bright beasts, all different and unique, on every handy surface. These bright beasts are very friendly. They smile. Against them, beige hasn’t a chance.”

Excerpt from a June 1969 issue of Progressive Architecture about the house on 908 Steiner.

Maija not only enhanced the paint colors of the house, but also added other embellishments such as a peacock head in one of the gables and 10-foot Nile alligator in an upper-story window. Also known as the Psychedelic House, the Iverson House, and the Rainbow House, this hippie hangout was a meeting place for artists, poets and writers who sparked the Nut art and Funk Art movements. While the house was sold and no longer retains its rainbow paint job, the current owners did choose a vibrant shade of blue instead.

908 Steiner Street, between Fulton and McAllister Streets. Built in 1888 by R. O. Chandler. Architects, Schmidt & Shea. Multi-colored portico of Victorian with peacock head added to fan element in gable. Polychrome paint by Maija Gegeris, 1967, and prototype of all the city’s multicolor paint jobs. Photo by Judith Lynch, OpenSFHistory / wnp25.12030.jpg

The house today has been repainted and now has a giant tree out front. Image from Google Street View.

430-432 Elizabeth 1970s. [Kardum 442 (sic) Eliz] Stick Victorian, close up of entry. Sign on building ‘Butch Kardum, Expert Colorist, Painting 824-1623’ OpenSFHistory / wnp25.11020.jpg
Butch Kardum was another colorist movement pioneer. Like color consultant Bob Buckter (“Dr. Color”), Kardum’s card was affixed to many newly-painted Victorian homes in the 1970s. Kardum began experimenting with intense blues and greens on his own Italianate home in 1963. After initially negative reactions from his neighbors, in a short while his entire block had been repainted in colors as colorful as his own.

Kardum became a color designer, and with his newly-established business began re-painting homes all over town. The photo below shows Kardum at work at a home on Cesar Chavez in the 70s:

Edwardian Apartments at 3309 Cesar Chavez (then Army Street) at South Van Ness Avenue in the 1970s being painted by Butch Kardum. Photo by Judith Lynch, OpenSFHistory / wnp25.11015.jpg

The colorist movement became an iconic feature of San Francisco and its culture, representing individualism and self-expression. For people like Maija Peeples and Bruce Kardum who’d lived many years in muted-color homes, reinventing their own residences in greens, blues, yellows, and reds not only allowed them to experiment with new ideas of aesthetic beauty, but helped regenerate the city’s graying streetscapes.

As Victorian homes in San Francisco now toggle between bright colors and gray, we remember this colorful chapter in the city’s architectural and cultural heritage. Below are a few more examples of Victorians from the colorist era, taken by well-known researcher, writer, and teacher on Victorian architecture, Judith Lynch. Lynch took thousands of 35mm color slides of San Francisco buildings in the 1970s, documenting styles, survivors, unsympathetic renovations, and successful restorations. With support from The Victorian Alliance of San Francisco, Western Neighborhoods Project has scanned and added many of these images to OpenSFHistory.

1083 Dolores, circa 1973. Restored Queen Anne with corner tower. Homeowner Bill Dodge restored the former Matson house from stucco modernization. Photo by Judith Lynch, OpenSFHistory / wnp25.2695.jpg

23rd & Dolores Street, June 1974. Victorian flats on southwest corner in process of being painted. Photo by Judith Lynch, OpenSFHistory / wnp25.10488.jpg.

4184 17th Street, November 1976. Flats after repainting. North side of 17th Street between Douglass and Eureka. Photo by Judith Lynch, OpenSFHistory / wnp25.10553.jpg

4184 17th St. in April 2020. This is an example of a Victorian home now even more colorful than it was in 1976! (Heritage Photo)


Architecture SpotlightVictorian Buildings

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