City Paper is not for tourists
If you live in a part of D.C. where houses are bought and sold like daytrader shares—or if you just have a bad habit of surfing Zillow at work—there’s one aesthetic question that’s probably crossed your mind in recent months.
What’s with all the gray houses?
From Petworth to Anacostia, Riggs Park to Bloomingdale, developers are applying fresh paint in tones of Raincloud or Flagstone to the fronts of newly renovated rowhouses, as subtle as a 25-foot “For Sale” sign. The gray rowhouse shines out to homebuyers not so much as a beacon in the fog but a foggy beacon, its message contradictory: Here is a chance to buy property in D.C., but hurry, it’s fleeting; this neighborhood is desirable but in transition; the house is seemingly pristine, and most likely a flip.
Although the exact origins of “flip-house gray” are unclear, the trend goes back a few years. In a 2013 article about the resurgence of house flipping, the Wall Street Journal mentions a house in Columbia Heights that was very quickly and profitably flipped; the accompanying photo shows a gray-brown front with a red door.
Since then, D.C. house prices have continued their steep ascent, and some developers have renovated dozens of properties around the city, making gray part of their tried-and-true formula. A scroll through the portfolio of ERB Properties, for example, turns up mostly gray rowhouses, several of them converted to condos. Just a few minutes browsing real estate sites like Redfin or Trulia will yield scores of gray rowhouses listed for sale around the city.
District residents are noticing brick streetscapes cloud over, and not everyone is happy about it. This past summer, the local blog Next Stop… Riggs Park reported “what seems to be a (disturbing to some) trend—painting the houses gray.” One commenter on the site expressed concern that “we will be a neighborhood of houses with peeling paint instead [of] the lovely natural brick,” while another endorsed the change: “I’ve always loved the colors and individuality of houses in Shaw, LeDroit Park, and Capitol Hill.”
Why paint a brick rowhouse at all? Mainly, it’s a cheap, easy way to refresh a brick facade. Many rowhouses in the city are a century old, or close to it, and “you probably don’t want to risk [damaging] hundred-year-old mortar by power-washing,” notes Kevin Wood, a realtor with Slate Properties. Left as is, old brick may appear dingy—especially if the house dates to the era when coal was burned in D.C.—or it will have gaps between courses where the mortar needs repointing, a painstaking repair job. New paint can hide a multitude of small flaws.
On a row of near-identical brick houses, there’s no better way to make yours stand out than with a coat of contrasting paint. A prospective buyer cruising the neighborhood won’t wonder which one is the house for sale—it’s the gray one, obviously.
Gray is neutral, “a safe, boring color,” says Wood, that’s “inoffensive to the largest number of people.” He’s showed gray houses and never heard a peep about the color, as opposed to a neon-green house he sold. (“That got comments.”)
But gray isn’t the only neutral. Why not beige, tan, or cream?
I posed the question to Annie Elliott, an interior designer in D.C. who runs a business called Bossy Color. About two years ago, Elliott says, gray replaced beige as the most popular neutral in home interiors, so she’s not surprised that it’s moved outside. It’s a safe color, she agrees, but one she has a lot of respect for.
“Gray really does walk this line between traditional and classic,” Elliot says. “It’s easy to imagine you putting your own stamp on a gray house, in a small way that will have a big impact.” For instance, an owner who likes contemporary design might paint the door kelly green (“Gray looks sharp with more poppy colors,” unlike beige, she notes), while someone with traditional taste would opt for a red or black door.
This flexibility is a big advantage for developers marketing their homes to a wide range of customers. Another advantage, Elliott says, is that gray makes a good backdrop for plants, maximizing the appeal of what’s often a tiny front yard.
A timid, wishy-washy, bipartisan color: Gray seems like it was destined for D.C., at least for the D.C. that exists in the minds of New York Times writers. But as Elliott points out, the city no longer deserves its reputation for lacking style. (Anyway, who are Brooklynites to judge us from their brownstones?)
The city is sharply divided along lines of class and race, though, which brings me to the most interesting thing about the gray phenomenon: It manages to blur a few of those barriers. Gray is fashionable in Riggs Park and Brightwood, and also in Columbia Heights, where property values are higher. Higher still are the house prices in Dupont and Capitol Hill, and gray is a popular choice there for non-flipped houses, too.
The city’s most desirable rowhouse neighborhoods got that way, in part, thanks to their superior housing stock. In the late 19th century, developers such as Charles Gessford used an array of decorative features to woo the professional class that had emerged in Washington after the Civil War: terra cotta and stained glass, intricate cornices, pediments, deep bay windows, and even conical roofs, which sit on top of houses in Bloomingdale and Capitol Hill like party hats.
Later on, owners painted their houses different colors. Now those blocks strike a happy balance between individuality and conformity, an effect that the commenter on the Riggs Park blog, and many other Washingtonians, love.
By the early 1900s, highly ornamented facades had gone out of style. Harry Wardman, the British-born mogul who built thousands of houses around the District, usually had his architects design plainer fronts. So paint does more to spruce up one of Wardman’s “day lighter” houses in Petworth or Kingman Park than it does for an ornate Gessford rowhouse. A lick of gray paint goes even further in places like Riggs Park, where the houses were built later still and with less architectural detailing.
All down the chain of D.C. real estate, gray is how flippers “sell up” by evoking the cachet of a more expensive zip code. Columbia Heights plus gray is Adams Morgan; Manor Park plus gray is Petworth, or close enough. On one level, gray really means white—it’s a visual code for gentrification.
But who’d begrudge a homeowner wanting her house to look different from the neighbor’s, or preferring crisp gray to the orangey red of modern brick? For those of us who can’t afford a house with patina, fresh paint is a shortcut to architectural style and to the parts of Boomtown that elude our grasp. Maybe I can’t live on 14th Street, but I can eat oysters and paint my house Oyster.
Flip-house gray doesn’t try to look like stone, the way Baltimore formstone does; it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: paint on brick. It’s aspirational, but at $40 a gallon, not an actual driver of gentrification. Of course, the more popular it gets, the less of an impression it will make, and developers will surely abandon it—if they haven’t moved on to another color first. Elliott says ivories and whites are gaining on gray inside D.C. homes, and so are navy blue and even black. Elsewhere, black houses are already a thing among architects and their high-end clients, so it’s conceivable we’ll start seeing them in D.C. soon.
Whether or not that happens, one thing is clear: Red brick, so characteristic of D.C., is on the wane. Once a house is painted, there’s usually no going back; repainting is easier than stripping it off. Locals attached to the warmth of raw brick will be disappointed.
I like the look of brick, too, and its connection to the red-clay soil beneath our feet. But I don’t see reason to worry. Brick exteriors are hardly endangered in the District. And no one should fear an engulfing “grayscape”—many of the people buying gray houses today will choose a different shade when it’s time to repaint in seven or ten years.
A couple of decades from now, D.C. will be a brighter city, the current fad for gray barely discernible on its multicolored blocks. Power to the paint brush, I say.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery