“Thanks for Ruining the Neighborhood!”
Once upon a time, the idyllic little blue cottage didn’t look like a fairy tale. It wasn't blue, and it didn't float in a bed of roses. There were no fragrant blooms lining a whimsical picket fence. No gardenias, no trumpet flowers, no plumeria, no rosemary, no lavender, no hydrangeas, and no bougainvillea. There wasn’t a wispy Palo Verde tree, or a Gothic cast iron park bench. No peach, apple, and orange trees dropping fruity delights on the lawn and patio all year long. It didn’t have a heavenly back yard scattered with flowering potted plants. No sized-down replicas of Grecian ruins and Michelangelo’s David. No angel statues. No hot pink Azalea tree. No sparkly chandelier hanging inside a turquoise tent, no landscape lights, and no outdoor speakers to serenade the guests.
Nope. Nope. And nope. Things were pretty buttoned down at this dreary little grey cottage.
(Photo #1. The "before" photo. The little blue cottage in 2008 when it was grey, a little more than two years after I moved in. It’s a hip-roof cottage built in 1900 by a man named Leroy Potter.)
So, how did The Hum Drum House become Old Towne Orange’s most iconic Cartoon Cottage?
It’s a story older than time.
I met a guy!
(Photo #2. The "after" photo. This was taken by our neighbor and photographer extraordinaire, Will Hare, for an article in the November/December 2011 Old Towne Orange Plaza Review.)
Pre-Mike: Escape from Irvine
July 2006. Escrow closed on new digs in Old Towne Orange, California. I was 40-years-old, an attorney, a devout workaholic, never married, and fully determined to stay that way. I had just moved to Old Towne from a neighboring city called Irvine, where I lived a tranquil existence under the flight path of John Wayne Airport.
(Photo #3. My home of 9 years: the lush faux tropical paradise known as The Metropolitan Condominiums. Built sometime in the early 90’s, The Metropolitan is considered to be “entry-level” in Irvine’s lavishly overpriced real estate market.)
(Photo #4. Isn’t Irvine beeeyooootiful for those who can’t or won't pay more than a half million for their home? The Metropolitan Condominiums are slightly beyond the right-side frame of this photo, sandwiched between some mid-rises a block or two from the airport.)
For those not in the know, Irvine is pretty proud of itself. It’s one of the biggest "planned" cities in the nation. Living there is sort of like being inside Stepford Wives which in turn is inside The Truman Show which is being filmed for Channel One in Soviet Russia. I don’t know how else to describe Irvine, except there aren’t any meth labs there. Also, if Irvine was a deli item, it’d be a white bread bologna sandwich with no mustard, mayo, or pickles. No way, man. Pickles and condiments are heavily regulated in Irvine – even in tony Shady Canyon, where there isn’t much shade, and where you can buy color-restricted architectural detail for a starting price north of $5 million.
Let me just put it this way. If E.L. James ever writes a novel about platonic romances called Fifty Shades of Beige, Irvine would make great cover art.
(Photo #5. In 2011, the press released a story about the City of Irvine potentially allowing more color choices for properties near The Great Park. The reporter who broke the story drew some fun reader quotes, such as, “Irvine: We Have 62 Different Words for Beige” and “Irvine: Where Bland is in Demand.” My personal favorites are “Irvine: Sixteen Zip Codes, Six Floor Plans,” and “Irvine: Sorry, I Thought This Was My House.”)
Still Pre-Mike: A Grey Life in a Grey Cottage
2006 through September 2008. Needless to say, for someone escaping The Pantone Police, a cottage nestled in a tree-lined historic district with a nice rental unit over the garage and no HOA was a dream come true. This cottage had some real character.
As did Old Towne. Old Towne Orange is California’s largest National Register Historic District and has the second largest concentration of historic structures in the state (over1,300 contributing structures). It’s a beautiful blast-from-the-past Mayberry-like town where time slows down and the pace becomes slightly less frenetic than the rest of Orange County. Old Towne Orange boasts some of the best antique stores anywhere in California, and unfortunately for some of the locals, several of Orange County’s more popular eateries as well as the ever-expanding private college beast known as Chapman University.
I enjoyed living in Old Towne. A year after I arrived, the local preservation group – Old Towne Orange Preservation Association (OTPA) – snookered me into accepting a position on the board of directors, despite the fact I had no time for this. My roommate was my good friend Catherine, who happens to be a super talented interior designer. Catherine and I were having lots of fun shopping and dining at the local Old Towne hotspots when we both were not working. Which was almost never.
There were just a few things during this period that bothered me about the exterior of my new home. The first was that the front yard needed a fence to entrap my spunky, free-spirited dogs. Hannah aka Houdini Hannah in particular is a natural born escape artist. I can’t count the number of times I got a call on my cell phone or a knock on the door to announce the recovery of this tiny troublemaker.
(Photo #6. Hannah in a tiara. Her innocent expression is a tropical delusion.)
The second thing that really bugged me about the new abode is that I kept friggin’ driving past it. On my way home from work, the market, wherever, I would pass that house like I’d never seen it before. I’d get about block down the street before thinking, “where’s my house?” Turn around, drive back. Look around. Oh, there it is. Sheesh.
I left Irvine for this?
I'll sum it up this way. The cottage, despite its charm, lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
(Photo #7. This picture of the backyard and the rear of the back porch was taken during the pre-close inspection.)
(Photo #8. Another photo taken during the inspection, this one is from the back porch looking onto the backyard and garage. The garage has an apartment overhead and a small “illegal” room and bathroom behind it.)
(Photo #9. This is taken from inside the illegal room, facing the backyard, carport, and cottage. The guy wandering around the backyard is the prior owner.)
(Photo #10. This is what the backyard looked like shortly after I moved in. It had a few good features, including hardscape, a fire pit, and an old avocado tree that produced tons of fruit which, over the years, trespassers would constantly climb and pillage.)
(Photo #11. The back porch. As you can see, the prior owners showed a little personality with the door color.)
Enter Mike, Stage Left: Let the Fun Begin!
September 2008. For years, with limited exception, I dated only assholes and hooligans. Probably intentionally. By the age of 43, I didn’t expect anything to change, and I made no genuine effort toward a different result. My friends were nagging me, saying things like, “Girl, you need to doll up and get out of the house. It’s not like he’s going to walk through your front door!”
Yeah. Whatever. He did. Literally, my to-be husband walked through the front door on Labor Day weekend during my annual Orange International Street Fair private booze and BBQ-fest.
I didn’t even have to get off the couch.
A couple months later, sometime around November, I was with Mike (who I already knew was The One) sweating by the blazing fire pit in 75-degree weather. Mike mentioned something about the backyard privacy fence being wobbly. “I know,” I said, “The Santa Ana’s blew so hard a few weeks ago, I half expected to see cows from Chino twirling through the air.”
(Photo #12. Close approximation of Santa Ana winds. Santa Ana's are the closest Orange County ever comes to actual weather.)
I went on to explain the Santa Ana’s had blown the 6-foot fence almost to a 45-degree angle, and that I had propped it up with brooms and shovels until a handyman could complete repairs. As I told Mike, the handyman didn’t do great a job, despite charging me 800 bucks for time and material.
Upon hearing this, Mike sat there for a second, contemplating a strategy, then dropped the bomb.
“There’s something I haven’t told you,” he announced.
Uh oh, I think. Here comes the weird shit. Brace yourself.
I’m sitting there, expecting the worst, but hoping for the best, when Mike speaks these two and a half words, words I never expected to hear from any man in my life.
Upon hearing these words, I wanted to jump out of my chair and do back flips and cartwheels around the backyard. Instead, feigning nonchalance, I nodded my head and said, “Oh. It’s good to be handy.”
Mike persisted, “No, what I mean is that I’m H A N D Y.”
Now I’m thinking, what’s this about? Mike then proceeds to roll out the résumé, telling me about houses he’d remodeled, computers he’d built from scratch, a rocket he made that propelled a frog into the lower atmosphere, cars and trucks and engines he took completely apart and put back together again, software programs he’d written from scratch, things he’d blown up.
Not only did he walk through my front door, he could actually hang a door!
Of all the dumb luck.
Needless to say, Mike fixed the fence. He took down the entire length of it, dug out the rotting posts, coated the new ones in something called Henry’s, repotted them, rebuilt the whole thing and topped it all off with a fresh coat of white paint.
Now, that’s a boyfriend.
April 2009. All the rotted wood around the house and garage has been removed, replaced, and re-painted. The kitchen faucet is fixed. The hose bib doesn’t spray in my face anymore. The garage door that was blown off its hinges by the Santa Ana’s has been reattached. Loose floor boards have been nailed down tight. Cord control dominates. The sound system has been re-situated in the crawl space under the house so I don’t trip over the speaker wires every time I walk into the kitchen. The toilet doesn’t run. The windows open, and they shut too. The dogs love him. It’s all good.
What else could I ask for? Maybe a picket fence? Could he possibly build me a picket fence?
Silly question. I think it only took him a couple weekends and a few after-work hours to create an architectural picket wonder, the most fabulous front-yard fence in the history of Old Towne Orange. He designed it, laid it out on AutoCAD, and before I knew it, a symphony of chop saws and hand routers was screeching through our backyard and the surrounding five blocks.
What’s left to do? There’s just one thing that kept bothering me – the lifeless and very forgettable exterior of the house. “Can we maybe enhance some of the trim work?” I asked Mike, further elaborating that I couldn’t understand why the prior owners were so gosh darn stingy with the lavender and purple paint. “There’s just not enough of it,” I said, “and maybe we can just put more lavender where the white is, and a little more of that purple?”
A few hours later, Mike was up on a ladder with a brush and a can of lavender paint. I watched as a rash of lavender trailed Mike and the ladder, traveling around the porch then horizontally down the trim on the east side of the house towards a spaghetti cluster of cable wires that had been bunched up and nailed to the trim in one sloppy clump.
“What are you going to do when you get to the clump?” I asked.
“Call it a day,” he retorted.
By dinner, Mike had painted right up to the clump, which, as promised, is exactly where he stopped.
And that is how things stayed for a while. The house was frozen in a conflicting color state of battleship grey and half-painted blushing pastel.
(Photo # 13. This is so wrong. It looks like a grey house with a bad purple rash. At least the fence looks great.)
(Photo #14. The spaghetti clump of cable wires that foiled our trim paint work is behind the Dr. Seuss ficus tree, which we later yanked out and replaced with plumeria. Notice how the lavender paint stops right there?)
(Photo #15. A close-up of Mike’s masterpiece picket fence taken before he and his mom gave the landscaping a much-needed shot in the arm.)
(Photo #16. He even installed an automatic gate opener so I didn’t have to get out of my car.)
Early May 2009-ish. By now, we knew there was only one reasonable cure for the purple rash. We needed to repaint. Again.
But was I ever struggling with the color choices. On the interior of the house, I had gone hog-wild with color, but the exterior was a different story. I really was, initially, quite concerned about the neighbors liking our color choices.
So, I decided, I needed to keep the exterior paint understated, sophisticated, and elegant. Therefore, for inspiration, I went to my favorite source of sophisticated understated elegance, Elle Décor. The colors of a living room gracing the cover of a recent issue had really caught my eye. The ensemble consisted of a light mushroomy-bisquey color on the walls, a dusty purple chair, dusty sage-like drapes, and of course, all important anchoring black on the cocktail table and in the tasteful art hanging over an obviously expensive beigey sofa.
(Photo #17. My first color inspiration for the cottage was the April 2009 cover of Elle Décor.)
“So pretty and so European!” I thought. We could make the main house color mushroom-bisque and the trim dusty purple and dusty sage with black here and there and a black front door! Maybe we could get away with an itsy-bitsy bit of metallic gold on some of the narrower trim? Or, we could do the main house color the darker beige? Which one? Beige or mushroom-bisque? I kept going back-and-forth. I thought, “I don’t know, will the beige drown out the dusty purple and dusty sage? But if we do the mushroom-bisque, will the dusty sage lag behind? How will we do the contrast with the black to ensure the trim doesn’t sag and lag and drown?”
What to do?
This indecisiveness went on for weeks.
Late May 2009-ish. Our friend Kathleen Jewell, who happens to be a color consultant, came over to talk paint colors. Kathleen was in the front yard peering at the house from behind a fan of paint splotches when I emerged, armed with my Elle Décor. I showed her the magazine cover and explained I’d been fretting over beige vs. mushroom-taupe for over a week. Kathleen then said something to the effect of, “Beige? But this house is so cute. Do you really want it to be beige?”
Well, no, as it turns out, I really didn’t want a beige house. And I didn’t want soft yellow, or French blue, or sea foam green, or muted olive, or burnt brown, or fluffy cream, or basic white, or any other color that was on Old Towne Orange’s unofficial and unspoken list of acceptable colors. I therefore spun around and went back into the house, located my favorite table lamp, unplugged it, took it outside, and held it high for all to behold. “I want these colors,” I announced. Kathleen smiled and turned the fan deck towards me. Incredibly, and I mean really incredibly, she had selected the same colors that were in this richly-colored, gorgeous, happy lamp.
(Photo #18. The Schonbek Diadem blue crystal, lime green, and turquoise dupioni table lamp that inspired our house colors.)
The only remaining question was, did Mike like it?
Time to paint!
June 2009. Michael Jewell’s painting crew arrives and mobilizes. The crew spends at least the first two weeks of the job sanding down to approximately the 50-year mark on this 100-plus year-old cottage. They do this carefully and laboriously, by hand, to ensure there is no damage to the fabric of this precious historic resource. Every inch of the house was sanded and properly prepped.
Of course, none of this was going unnoticed. Nothing says “Achtung!” in Old Towne Orange quite like the arrival of an exterior house painting crew. By this time, I had lived in Old Towne for three years, but I’d never met half the folks who now were stopping to chat while walking dogs, jogging, biking, strolling with kids, or while on a leisurely pretextual Sunday drive.
No matter how the conversations with our new-found neighbors started, they’d always end with this question: “What color are you going paint it?” And we’d always give the same answer. “Blue,” we’d say, without further elaboration. This answer was never unsatisfactory. On the contrary, blue is a common and accepted color choice in Old Towne. Just not our blue. But no one expected our blue, so each of these friendly chats ended with our newly-discovered neighbor departing with a satisfied nod of the head.
“Hmm. Weird. So much focus on house color,” I thought. I didn’t see why, since there is no HOA in Old Towne. I was on the OTPA board, so I knew the city’s preservation design standards addressed only day glow and metallic paint. Our colors were coming from Benjamin Moore’s palette. Nothing in that color line approached the phosphorescence precluded by the City of Orange.
Nonetheless, I was feeling concerned that the neighbors, both near and far flung, weren’t going be as excited about the paint colors as Mike and me. But I didn’t expect full-fledged fomenting outrage. I didn’t expect to learn the following curious truth.
House colors bring out a person’s true colors.
Here Comes the Blue Paint and There Goes the Neighborhood!
The neighborhood interest in our painting project was hard to miss. The cottage is on a corner lot at an intersection that gets quite a bit of traffic, so people were paying attention to the daily progress. I’m sure lots of folks were looking forward to a freshly painted house.
Then the day arrived. The painting crew pulled up and began unloading drum after five-gallon drum of Benjamin Moore’s Midnight Blue paint. The paint started going up. People started to ask, with hope in their voices, “Is that the primer?”
No, we’d say. That’s the color.
(Photo #19. The blue cottage shortly after it was painted and just after we started sprucing up the landscaping.)
The first shot across the bow came from a lady in a faded red minivan covered in bumper stickers and decals advertising everything from, I don't know, her favorite fast food choices to her kids’ student-of-the-month successes for the prior five years. Mike was in the front yard doing something landscape related when the lady rolled up alongside the house, dropped her window, and snapped serial cell phone pictures while screaming at Mike, “THANKS FOR RUINING THE NEIGHBORHOOD!!!!!” She then reeled in her phone, zipped up her window, and peeled out in a huff.
News of "hideous paint colors" in the southeast quadrant of Old Towne spread like wildfire. Within days of Bumpersticker Lady shrieking at Mike and gathering photo documentation from the safety of her minivan, over the course of roughly a week, I saw at least 6 or 7 people angrily snapping pictures of the house before storming off in one direction or another.
The “I Hate Your House” juggernaut was building momentum. Day after day, folks walked and wheeled by the house, waiting until Mike or me (or whoever was in the yard) was paying attention, and then shook their head in disappointment. More than a few, in pairs or groups, made sure we were listening when they loudly lamented and “tisk tisked” about neighbors who were selfish or childish enough to ruin everyone else’s property values. I also got insult-ridden hate mail and at least one nasty-gram taped to the front door.
The fracas was enough to get the attention of the local rags. Shortly after things started to heat up, I got a knock on the door and was greeted by a couple of Chapman University students. The young ladies said they loved the house colors and wanted to write an article in the student paper about the “controversial blue house.” No problem, I said, slightly bothered by this comment by one of them: “I hope they don’t make you repaint it; oh my gosh people are soooo pissed. They’re starting a petition!”
A petition? Seriously?
Next, there was an on-line article in the OC Register, with the author reporting civil unrest in Old Towne. I saw quotes from neighbors maligning our taste, judgment, and implying my incompetence to serve on OTPA’s board. Then the on-line comments poured in. One anonymous neighbor equated our paint choices to throwing a worn-out Lazy Boy on the front lawn, plopping down on it in a thong bikini, and cracking open a can of Coors or Bud Light. The same neighbor referred to our house as “Toon Town” and, I think, Barney’s butt.
Fine. Whatever. The likability of house color is a subjective thing. At least we didn't paint our house Baby Poop Brown or Sheeple White.
It's My Freak Flag and I'll Fly It If I Want To
This brouhaha went on for about two months, although the petition went nowhere with a rocket on its back. By the time the ruckus started to die down (although it never did completely), I was looking at things this way. I paid a million dollars for this property. I had a highly stressful, demanding, and intense job. Work was not exactly the happiest place on earth, and I worked all the time. I therefore wanted our house to be a happy place.
As for those folks who thought it was more important for our house to make them happy, I took the following position:
(Photo #20. Yours truly flashing the international symbol of, "Hey, I'm so happy to hear your opinion.")
Of course, this is only one side of the story -- the amusing side, to be sure. There also were people who didn’t like the paint colors but still acted like civilized adults. Our more immediate neighbors and the other OTPA board members were pretty classy about the whole uproar. And there were neighbors who started off hating Chromotherapy Corner, but then, after getting to know the occupants and spending time in our house, came to appreciate it a little more.
But most people fell into the category of liking or loving the paint colors. In fact, the compliments and expressions of gratitude far outweighed the negativity perpetrated by our more judgmental neighbors. For several years, neighbors, and strangers, knocked on our door to say “thank you” or to ask for a tour of the interior of the house, which had at least as much going on as the exterior.
I don’t think we ever said “no” to anyone.
(Photo #21. Sometime in 2010 or so, Sabrina Lentini's mom knocked on our door and asked if they could do a photo shoot of a kid pop band at our house. This photo was part of an OC Register article about Sabrina when she was eleven-years-old. She is a gifted vocal artist who went on to earn a spot in American Idol's Top 48.)
But Shame on You for Ruining the Neighborhood!
Mike and I continued to live in the little blue cottage until May of 2016, when we moved to Michigan. You might ask, if we had known how stressful it would be to paint our house such frivolous colors, would we have done it anyway?
Was it worth the commotion?
The pictures speak a thousand words. Our cheerful little blue cottage gave us comfort, joy, and even uplifted us through some real trials and tribulations.
Isn’t that what a home is supposed to do?
(Photo #22. The beautiful photos of the house floating in beds of roses, and this one, were taken by Grant Rivera of Apex Studios when we were getting ready to sell the property in 2016. Thanks to our wonderful real estate agent, Tony Trabucco, the house wasn't on the market for more than a few days -- even though it was bright blue, turquoise, and lime green on the outside and black, red, purple, and orange on the inside. Ironically, the buyer's agent used to pause in front of our house during holiday trolley tours he gave of Old Towne Orange and announce to passengers, "And here, we have Old Towne's House of Concern." I don't think he knew my mother-in-law and her sister were on his trolley. Or, maybe he did.)
(Photo #23. Another "after" photo, looking into the backyard from the previously dumpy and definitely illegal back unit. This is another photo by Grant.)
(Photo #24. Grant's shot of the backyard. It smelled as pretty as it looked. Those are gardenia bushes to the right along with a potted plumeria which hadn't started blooming when Grant took this photo.)
(Photo #25. There aren't a lot of things we miss about California, but evenings in this backyard are one of them.)
(Photo #26. Kathleen Jewell painted the back porch black and white plaid. The yellow room behind the door is the kitchen which, shortly after this photo was taken, turned purple, green, and red.)
(Photo #27. The dogs dug the joint.)
(Photo #28. The front porch was a checkerboard. We loved the hot pink chairs, but some asshole stole them some time around 2012.)
(Photo #29. The front yard was an oasis, although I think some of our neighbors thought the flowers were too bright. Most of the people who hated our house colors also disliked the yellow and peachy-orange houses across the street. "Too loud!" people said. The whole experience left me with the impression that happy house colors will usually piss off grumpy people.)
To those who think we were selfish to imperil peace and property values in our neighborhood, I’ll say this. We never repainted, and it didn’t ruin anyone’s life or property value. Nope. In fact, one OC real estate-savvy neighbor told us our little cottage sold for more per square foot than any other Old Towne Orange single family dwelling, ever. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but if not, it’s probably pretty close. Especially when you back out the illegal guest suite from the square footage calculation.
I do know it was one of the top few single family dwelling sales Old Towne Orange has ever seen.
I think Bumpersticker Lady should've apologized and brought us a freshly baked pie in appreciation for the upward spike in her property's value.
I might forgive her for this omission.
In the meantime, we've moved on.
And how will we paint our majestic Northern Michigan Victorian?
The jury’s still out on that, but I think it'll look like a fairy tale.