The Value Of Color

Despite its persistently drab climate, St. John’s, Newfoundland, is known as Canada’s most colorful city. Lining the streets of this foggy harbor is an enviable number of rainbow-colored Victorian row houses, affectionately called Jellybean Row. However, up until the 1970s these dwellings provided about as much eye candy as a concrete mixer. Many other cities have also endured similar periods of architectural grey, but in time their streetscapes were also sweetened with visual treats like Jellybean Row.

Characterized as a series of structurally homogenous residences strung together by common walls, row houses have been a popular choice for international urban planners seeking efficient and economic housing. In most cities, these buildings began in dull fashion, dressed like identical twins. Uniformly grey and perfectly groomed, neat lines of houses resembled poised children on their school photo day – not a hair out of place or a crease in sight. But as neighborhoods embraced architectural expression, row houses have developed their own colorful personas that locals and tourists can’t get enough of.

There is folklore and fact surrounding why the St. John’s row houses became a spectral spectacle. One theory is that each facade was painted a different color to help fisherman find their way home through the fog. Perhaps they did become accidental beacons, but the main reason for the facelift had nothing to do with wayward mariners. The vibrant trend was in fact set in motion by the St. John’s Heritage Foundation in 1977, when a block of downtown row houses were painted to demonstrate a redevelopment plan that would revitalize the area. The infectious color scheme immediately spread around town, lifting moods, property values and tourism traffic with every vibrant lick of paint.

“…the artistry was at first concentrated, then exponentially grew…”

The famed Steiner Street in San Francisco has become the poster child for the North American architectural term, Painted Ladies, which describes the same multicolored phenomenon visible in St. John’s. In San Francisco it all started in the ’60s with a group of artists who decided to repaint battleship grey houses with more cheerful hues. Locals slowly embraced the aesthetic, known as the Colorist Movement, and their city is now celebrated for its uplifting, vibrant palette.

Elsewhere in the United States, Victorian row houses in the old quarters of Charleston, New Orleans, Baltimore and Cincinnati have also been revived with fresh coats of paint. In many cases the artistry was at first concentrated, then exponentially grew as neighbors warmed up to their increasingly saturated surrounds. Around the world, cities like Oaxaca de Juárez, Cartagena, Buenos Aires, Notting Hill and Cinque Terre also keep their street life bright with the rainbow-colored architecture of their historic districts.

In all these places local communities have learned the value of color – how it can energize a streetscape, express culture, preserve architectural heritage and, of course, make a very charming postcard.

Written by Amy Woodroffe
Photographed by Stephen Wilde

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