Culture And Commerce June 2007

Paint of View

The color of a house is a sign of owner individuality—and a test of neighborhood tolerance.
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Storybook Ending
Virginia Postrel tells the tale of how an enterprising first-time publisher gave the beloved children's book Mr. Pine a second life.

In the classic children’s book Mr. Pine’s Purple House, first published in 1965, the title character faces a problem familiar to many residents of new developments: His house looks exactly like all the neighbors’ houses. “‘A white house is fine,’ said Mr. Pine, ‘but there are FIFTY white houses all in a line on Vine Street. How can I tell which one is mine?” As the title suggests, Mr. Pine solves the problem by painting his house purple, inspiring his neighbors to adopt their own colors:

Now there are fifty houses on Vine Street. There are red houses, and green houses, and brown houses. There are yellow and pink houses, and there are some white houses, too. But there is just one purple house on Vine Street … And that is Mr. Pine’s purple house!

The book, says its author, Leonard Kessler, tells kids, “It’s OK to be different. You can find your own way, and purple seems to be a fine color to paint a house.” Kessler, whose license plate reads MR PINE, loves purple. He has three pairs of violet-hued shoes—lavender, magenta, and purple—and a lavender studio with one striped wall that he says “looks like a circus.” The inside of his home’s front door is painted purple, too.

But Mr. Kessler doesn’t have a purple house. The homeowners’ association in his Sarasota, Florida, neighborhood would never approve. It doesn’t even allow white buildings. The outside of Kessler’s two-story condo is covered with demure beige shingles, just like every other building on the street. “Mr. Pine escaped the white houses,” says Kessler, “but now they’re all beige.”

Attitudes and institutions have changed since Mr. Pine’s day. Courts have given local governments broad authority to enforce aesthetic restrictions once considered outside legitimate police power. A 1993 survey found that 83 percent of American cities and towns had some form of design review to control building appearance. Today’s offended neighbors have legal remedies, including retroactively changing the rules. In 2003, for instance, when a man in Lauderhill, Florida, painted his house deep purple with gold trim, outraged neighbors demanded—and got—a new city ordinance establishing an official color palette and giving him three years to repaint.

Most paint regulations, however, are private, enforced through contractual arrangements like the ones governing Kessler’s Sarasota neighborhood. The number of Americans living in some sort of community association has jumped from 2.1 million in 1970 to 57 million last year, and a third of all housing units built after 1970 are governed by homeowners’ associations. Although residents may chafe at the restrictions they impose, homeowners’ associations meet a real demand: They not only manage common areas like golf courses or condo roofs, but also give neighborhoods a predictable visual character, something many home buyers are willing to pay extra for.

As the economist Robert H. Nelson writes in Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government:

Many Americans seem to prefer a de facto private status for their immediate neighborhood environment—putting the neighborhood in the same category as their automobile, furniture, and other private possessions.

Environmental consciousness extends to the color of front doors and the placement of basketball hoops. People see their entire neighborhood, not just their own home, as an extension of their identity.

But while individuals can choose their own cars and sofas, neighborhood design must happen collectively. Hence the growth of aesthetic conflict. What one person considers obvious common sense, another finds repressive or boring. After a fresh coat of fuchsia paint appeared on a Brooklyn brownstone last fall, a commentator on Brownstoner.com wrote, “Someone call Landmarks … and the firing squad.” (Unfortunately for the would-be decor dictator, the Park Slope brownstone was first painted pink in 1968, before the area was designated a historic district, so the city’s Landmarks Commission can’t in fact outlaw the color.) Another Web site pundit, though, wrote, “This house has always rocked.” Such neighborhood controversies demonstrate just how much people disagree about what’s appropriate or attractive. Not only do tastes in colors differ, but so does the taste for variety.

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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor in chief of deepglamour.net. She is writing a book about glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.
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