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House of a Different Color

Among the colonials and bungalows of Washington, daring splashes of nonconformity

Painted with personality, these facades show no intention of blending in.
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By Annie Groer
Sunday, April 20, 2008; Page W32

OH, HOW I'VE SUNG THE "HOUSE HUE BLUES," a mournful tune born of painting or trimming the exterior of your home in a socially unacceptable color.

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Even in the bidding-war, escalator-clause, inspection-be-damned frenzy of 2004, my 1957 rambler sold for $49,000 below asking price, in part because it never occurred to me or the agent to repaint large expanses of the historically correct, but blatantly anomalous, turquoise trim. In Chevy Chase, the heart of center-hall colonialism, a bold design statement means painting the front door red or slapping a coat of pale yellow on the bricks.

The new owners covered most of my beloved "Miami Vice" aqua in tasteful taupe, but that costly lesson (I would have repainted it in a heartbeat had I known) made me aware of how few bold exteriors dot this area.

Occasionally, a stately Victorian in Takoma Park, Rockville or Capitol Hill will get the traditional, full "painted lady" treatment: multiple colors and shades for all the spindles, shingles, florets and posts. The combinations range from vivid (red, white and blue; or green, red and buff) to subtle (baby blue, whisper pink, butter cream and mint green). Stucco homes look particularly fetching under a layer of sunflower or paprika paint, evoking Tuscany or Provence (extra points for bright blue trim). Bungalows, with their overhangs, balusters and shutters, get everything from Arts and Crafts teals, greens, reds and tans to the far funkier Pepto-Bismol pink and school bus yellow.

Jane Martinache, who lives in Alexandria's hip Del Ray neighborhood, grew up in military housing, "white inside and out." Perhaps that is why she chose purple to cover her 1923 wood-frame house (which was originally built as church in 1894). "Eggplant for the primary color, with lavender and pink trim." Martinache, who is in ad sales and is clearly well-mannered, consulted her across-the-street neighbors while choosing colors "because they would see it more than I did."

Making nice was not an issue for Fred Wertlieb, who didn't care what anyone thought when he gave his Logan Circle rowhouse a radical makeover. For 35 years, he was content to live in a white-painted brick end unit -- with its especially long east-west prospect of wall, garage and patio. But last year he painted it sky blue, trimmed with darker blue and accented with fuchsia, peach and yellow. "I am an artist, and a little bit eccentric, and I wanted to put a little color in the neighborhood," he says.

So did Meg Greene and her husband, Brian Greenberg, who, having lived overseas, went for tropical dazzle on their rowhouse just blocks east of Wertlieb. Like a parrot amid a flock of sparrows on the one-block street, the formerly light-brown bricks are now lime green, with hunter green, chrome yellow and brilliant orange details.

Unlike Brazil and India, where she often saw houses that throbbed with vibrant hues, Greene says, "America is afraid of color. It's kind of like you are communicating too much personal information or making yourself vulnerable if you go with strong color."

Both of us have paid the price for exterior exuberance. Her historically incorrect color scheme was rejected by the nonprofit L'Enfant Trust, meaning that the couple cannot qualify for a conservation easement on the facade, which would have given them a $67,500 tax deduction. But Greene has no intention of repainting. "We love the color."

Annie Groer is a staff writer for The Post's Home section. She can be reached at groera@washpost.com.


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