By Amy O’Hair
Although this is a history blog, I offer this polemic to address a current and ongoing phenomenon; I only hope it will be history soon. The blocks of this neighborhood (and every other one in the city) are awash in the grim shades of lead, asphalt, mildew, and petro-chemical smudge, and I don’t mean the streets and sidewalks. Two-plus years of covid-era walks has made the problem impossible to ignore.
Houses are turning gray, and it’s a dreary sight. Sure, these last years have been somber, but the gray trend mushroomed well before that.
The world grown gray
I photographed every gray house in Sunnyside*; more fell to the menace even as I thought I’d got them all. There were too many to include in this post–hundreds. I walk everywhere in the city, and it is the same in other districts. I am hardly the first to comment on this pervasive and apparently infectious color-phobia, but as it still marches on unabated, I make the case here for breaking this dull, dull spell of grimly hued houses. After several galleries of grayness, I’ll show examples of houses that buck the trend—from old-school pastels to natty new bold tones.
You may argue with my choices, but it is the agglomeration on every block of all those gray and near-gray houses that I am underlining here. It mounts up, visually—over the course of a stroll, or over the months of getting outdoors for some fresh air and a new view, only to find it is grimmer than before.
A Walk Among the Tombstones
A house is the public face of private life, a communal contribution to the visual streetscape. One house after another has drunk the sullen, colorless Kool-Aid, increasingly depriving local walkers everywhere of that most basic of human visual delights—color.
Citizens of death’s gray land
Gray is the color of fungus and decomposition; of duct tape and spackling putty; of navy battleships and industrial cinderblock; of soot and smoke; of tombstones and ashes.
Gray is a troll, truculently opting out of the carousel of color, and spamming your eye with a humorless scowl.
Glimmering dully like a sheet of lead
The urban world is already full of things that are by default gray: the twelve shades of sidewalk concrete; oil-stained asphalt and dull metal infrastructure, ubiquitous dumpsters and gray plastic port-a-potties; steel plates and car-tire smears on pavement. San Francisco has the extra gray blessing in the form of our glorious fog. But houses need never be tarred with a gray brush.
The set grey life, and apathetic end
Who knew the moods of gray best but the serious and death-minded Victorian poets? The section titles here are taken from their work. (Sources for quotes in the Endnotes.)
A leaden army that conquers the world
A decade ago, the single gray house here and there was once an oddity, a supposedly daring style choice; now they are everywhere, 3 or 10 or 12 on a block, and the morose mood lays heavily on the landscape.
An aesthete friend who once liked the trend but now has gone off it, insists it was in part born of the needs of absentee landlords wanting a paint color that deterred graffiti and also made it easy to cover over when deterrence didn’t work. Another friend says “It’s the grittiness thing, like that film The Batman.”
Surely for a phenomenon this robust and persistent, there are plenty of determining factors: real estate agents advising sellers; home-renovation TV shows; house-flippers scent-marking their work; abhorrence of old-school beige combined with dismay when faced with choosing a color; envy of expensive architect-designed buildings that can actually pull off the gray colorway.
All theory is gray / And green the golden tree of life
After this massive gallery of dreary gray rogues—which I hope makes my case for ditching the moldy and unsupportable paint trend—I promise to note some creative, distinctive, and altogether more cheery facades and colorways, worthy of consideration—just hold on through a few more galleries of local gloom….
Old and grey and full of sleep
A gray stranger that shows up in your dreams
A grey and melancholy waste
The public school in the neighborhood was covered in a leaden-colored coat of paint some ten or so years ago, most notably the enormous auditorium wall that looms over Hearst Avenue; this massive wall seems to infect nearby houses, as now there are eight or nine in gray shades across the street from it. Another joined the cemetery bandwagon as I was writing this.
One stark monotony
Unbelievably, as if to underscore the headlong heedlessness of the trend, there are many places in Sunnyside where next-door neighbors have painted their houses shades of gray barely distinguishable from each other, aping their neighbor’s dismally color-deprived choices, leading to pairs and triplets of gray frontages.
A sea of lead, a sky of gray?
Are all gray houses dismal? Maybe not. Some houses, perhaps like these below, do manage to just make a gray colorway work, with stronger or brighter trim colors or other features like bits of color.
Still, given the cloud of gray that has descended on all residential blocks, it’s a hard call.
Some houses use gray or black judiciously, like these, and as a result they do escape the pervasive look of doom.
Lipstick on a Cinderblock
As if to compensate for the ghastly shades of freeway and prison walls, some gray houses sport a brightly colored door. But this naturally leads to unfortunate visual comparisons to corporate logo schemes, cheap commercial products, and traffic and transit signage.
From Colored Boxes to Gray Boxes
In 1962, singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds poked fun at midcentury mores by using the visual trope of San Francisco’s rows of boxy middle-class houses, distinguishable only by being (slightly) different colors; by implication, the people in them were also barely distinguishable from each other.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same
“Little Boxes” equates the mindless conformism we associate with the 1950s with living in the small attached houses that stretch over much of the city.
I believe some of the gray-paint fashion now is a reaction to the historical colored-boxes tradition of San Francisco’s middle-class districts.
The irony, of course, if that now gray looks about as mindlessly conformist as it gets in the twenty-first century.
An excellent reason for embracing once again San Francisco’s old-school ‘tradition’ of little boxes in different colors.
The Courage of Color
Paint forecasters are still touting gray schemes online, ten years into this gloomy mess. To set a house apart from the crowded tombstone landscape, one need only pick a color. Any color. Then a shade of that color. Or two. You will be giving us all a treat.
Not everyone is up to bold choices such as these, but they bear looking at.
There are those who’ve found their delight in dark, strong colors that never look like black, even on dim foggy days.
Plenty of our houses are still colorful—plain pastels, or middle-of-the-road shades, or unsophisticated crayon colors—even just a nice brown.
Personally, I will take any of them over gray.
Begin in Gladness
House color choices that mark themselves out with distinction among the boxy facades are those that partake of two or three or more colors, accentuating the simple forms with something quite delightful to look at.
Many of our small houses already have some color built in, in the bricks, stone-facings, terrazzo steps, and so on. Unfortunately, some houses go gray and thus clash with the built-in earth-toned features—or resort to covering those original features in a coat of gray or black. I was sorry to see these clinker bricks go recently in a nearby neighborhood.
But using these features, and choosing paint colors they harmonize with, is a better solution.
Walking, I see lots of original, remarkable colorways around the neighborhoods. A few finds:
Outside of gray and color, some houses have gone the way of the See’s Candy Box—stark white with black or dark brown trim.
However, this newer-than-gray trend is also spreading virus-like, leading to several neighbors all having the same scheme—though not in Sunnyside, yet—thus thoroughly defeating the objective of looking distinctive and different. It’s a problem that could have been solved simply by just choosing a color.
Do Car Color Trends Come First?
The virus of gray houses is everywhere matched by that of gray cars on the road (or parked in front of the gray houses).
Recently travelling in Europe, I was encouraged by seeing many new cars in unusual colors. Not white, fire-engine red, black, and five different grays, but a whole range of interesting and atypical hues—paprika, tomato soup, emerald fizz, matcha tea, goldenrod, creamy aqua, custard yellow. Perhaps it bodes something nice in the future for house paint.
Should you be in a position to advise someone contemplating new paint, or if you deciding this for your own house, please listen not to the gray-brained pundits from on high, but take a wander in a garden or park, and be open to the whimsy and pleasure you see in colors around you. Let yourself dream in color.
* Out of a desire not to leave the members of any particular household feeling targeted by my strident polemic, I tried to render all the gray house photographs anonymous, with no addresses apparent, and defamiliarizing them for the viewer using various Photoshop tricks, but I have in no way altered the color of any image.
** All photographs by Amy O’Hair, except the gym shorts, lime socks, aqua headphones, and gray trainers.
*** if you are wondering what color my own house, it’s an aged Swiss Coffee with dark red trim, not particularly exciting, but not anywhere near gray.
- “It was in the 2010s when, as [Sherman Williams] puts it, ‘the graying of America’ began in full force. Gray knocked the long-reigning beige out of its position as the default wall color, complemented by some white, black, and off-black shades. Homeowners embraced gray as a more modern, upscale, and elegant neutral option that paired well with other neutrals as well as bolder shades.” https://www.homelight.com/blog/is-gray-paint-going-out-of-style/ ↑
- ‘Thou hast conquered, O Pale Galilean; the world has grown gray from thy breath; / We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.’ Algernon Charles Swinburne Hymn to Proserpine . Lethean: adjective: causing oblivion or forgetfulness of the past. As in “painting your house gray induced a kind of Lethean forgetfulness of the joy that color brings the human eye.” ↑
- Title of a neo-noir film produced in 2014, where the most colorful thing in the cemetery are the dismembered body parts. ↑
- ‘Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land.’ Siegfried Sassoon Dreamers . The battlefields of WWI were nothing if not starkly, miserably, relentlessly gray. ↑
- Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” (1926). ↑
- ‘The long mechanic pacings to and fro, / The set gray life, and apathetic end.’ Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Love and Duty . ↑
- ‘I am the voice of today, the herald of tomorrow…I am the leaden army that conquers the world—I am type.’ Frederic William Goudy, The Type Speaks (1938). ↑
- ‘Dear friend, all theory is gray, / And green the golden tree of life.’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust [1808-1832]. ↑
- ‘The sun that brief December day / Rose cheerless over hills of gray, / And darkly circled, gave at noon / a sadder light than waning moon.’ John Greenleaf Whittier, Snowbound . ↑
- ‘When you are old and gray and full of sleep, / And nodding by the fire, take down this book.’ William Butler Yeats, When You Are Old . ↑
- ‘When the gray stranger shows up in your dream.’ Howard Nemerov, Nightmare . Pop-psychology brings the brooding Victorian landscape inside. ↑
- ‘The old ocean’s gray and melancholy waste’ William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis [1817-1821]. ↑
- ‘The gray-green stretch of sandy grass,/ Indefinitely desolate; / A sea of lead, a sky of slate; / Already autumn in the air, alas! / One stark monotony of stone, / The long hotel, acutely white; / Against the after-sunset light / Withers gray-green and takes the grass’s tone.’ Arthur Symons, Color Studies  ↑
- ‘The gray-green stretch of sandy grass,/ Indefinitely desolate; / A sea of lead, a sky of slate; / Already autumn in the air, alas! / One stark monotony of stone, / The long hotel, acutely white; / Against the after-sunset light / Withers gray-green and takes the grass’s tone.’ Arthur Symons, Color Studies . ↑
- ‘We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But therefore come in the end despondency and madness.’ William Wordsworth, Resolution and Independence (1807). ↑