Painted Ladies: The suburbs' colorful homes, businesses receive honors
It takes a special type of person to invest the time, energy and money necessary to rehabilitate an old house or storefront. But it takes even more dedication to turn an old house or business into a "Painted Lady" with all of its details -- both intricate and mundane -- painted in such a way as to make them stand out and "wow" passers-by.
The practice of painting buildings, particularly Victorian homes, in an array of colors in order to accentuate architectural details may have started in San Francisco in the 1960s, but it has certainly spread throughout the country in the intervening years.
For the past 32 years, dedicated owners and the painting contractors they've hired have been honored annually by the Chicago Paint and Coatings Association, based in Schaumburg, for their efforts to improve historic neighborhoods and preserve our communities' residential and commercial architectural history. The contest is open to properties within a 50-mile radius of Chicago.
This year eight homes and two nonresidential buildings were deemed worthy of recognition. Seven were located in Elgin and the other three came from Mount Prospect, Downers Grove and River Forest.
Entries are judged based on how paint and color have been used to bring out the beauty of the house and how the paint complements the house, surroundings and neighborhood. The style, size or age of the property is not a factor in selecting the winners.
Association members say the wide range of beautiful entries underscores the fact that paint and coatings are the most affordable ways to improve and accent a home's or business's appearance. The entries are always judged in a variety of categories such as Best Use of a Bold Color Combination, Best Use of Color for a Non-Victorian, Best Use of Historically Accurate Colors for a Residence and Best Use of a Paint Detail. A grand prize winner is also chosen each year and all honorees receive a plaque to commemorate their achievement.
Two of the honored houses are loaded with history.
The Elgin house at 600 E. Chicago Ave., currently owned by Suzanne Haas, was honored for Best Use of a Bold Color Combination.
The home was built for George Richardson, a native of Vermont who moved to Elgin with his wife, Jennie, and his daughter, Georgie, in 1889 to become superintendent of the David C. Cook Publishing Co., a very successful Sunday school materials publisher.
This impressive Shingle-style home was built for the Richardsons in 1892 at a cost of $6,500. The Shingle style was an adaptation of several building traditions, including the Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Richardsonian Romanesque styles. In fact, famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright built a Shingle-style home for his own family in Oak Park.
One very prominent feature of this particular Shingle-style home is its tower, tucked away into its undulating wall planes. The curved roof that caps the tower is most fittingly referred to as a "witch's cap."
Rumor has it that this house was, at one time, used as a boys' home.
Carlos Rivera, owner of Elgin's Homework Construction, was the painting contractor on the home. He has been creating "painted ladies" throughout Elgin since about 2008, using crews of three to seven painters per house.
The Haas house took five weeks of repair before the painting could even commence. Then the painters attacked one side of the house at a time, carrying three different colored brushes with them every time they climbed a ladder, Rivera said.
"We aren't just painting Victorians in multiple colors anymore," he added. "We are using the (multicolor) technique on many different architectural styles and every time we do it, the finished product enhances the whole neighborhood."
Rivera's other two 2018 winners were the multifamily residence at 120 and 122 Spring St. in Elgin, owned by David Kruse, and the business at 225 E. Chicago Ave. in Elgin, which won Best Use of Expressive Colors for a Business.
The Mount Prospect home at 21 S. Maple St., honored for the Best Use of Historically Accurate Color for a Residence, is owned by Pam and Don Dammen. Pam is the granddaughter of the original owners, Herman and Ida Meyn. Herman was Mount Prospect's second mayor.
This Victorian home was built in 1912, five years before Mount Prospect was even incorporated. Herman Meyn's father, John, was the town blacksmith and one of its four founders, so it wasn't surprising that his son would aspire to become mayor.
Pam sought to, as much as possible, restore the house to its original condition. So when paint chips uncovered during the scraping determined that the house had originally been green, she chose to paint it green again, with several accent colors.
John Rittle of Mount Prospect-based JLR Painting Inc. and his five-man crew did the honors.
"This was new for me. I had never painted a home's exterior using four colors like I did for the Dammens," he admitted. "Pam picked the colors she wanted to use, but then we collaborated to determine which color looked best where.
"Painting in so many colors is much more time-consuming than conventional house painting, but it was fun," Rittle said. "I know that when I see a house in the future where a splash of multiple colors would be appropriate, I will definitely suggest it to the homeowner. It was fun to use different colors to make different elements of the house pop out and the finished product is definitely an enhancement to the whole neighborhood."
Josh Martin, owner of Josh's Painting in Elgin, was recognized for painting three Elgin houses and one Elgin business. He won Best Craftsmanship of Paint Application for a Business for 19 and 21 Douglas Ave., owned by Don and Diana Rage; Best Use of Color for a Non-Victorian for the Georgian home at 821 Douglas St., owned by Connor and Christine Goetz; Best Use of Paint Detail for the home at 457 Villa St., owned by Juan Alvarez; and Best Use of Craftsmanship of Paint Application for Jack Trimble's home at 820 Mill St.
"It can be a nightmare to take on a Painted Lady project because it is like doing a puzzle," Martin said. "You have to have a special kind of brain to see where the colors belong."
Martin has been painting Painted Ladies for about a decade, mostly in Elgin. To date there are 14 to his credit in the city. He even painted a house with an impressive rainbow a few years ago.
"Most houses end up painted in two colors -- for the background and another then for the trim. But Painted Ladies generally have a few more, to many more, colors and it really makes a house come to life," Martin said. "Right now we have lots of millennials coming to Elgin, specifically to get or create a Painted Lady, in fact."
Ron Feley, owner of Oak Park-based Ronbo's Fine Painting, has been painting these types of homes since 1990. He won the 2018 grand prize for a home in River Forest and also won a prize for the Best Use of Color for the Style of the Home for a house at 5256 Fairmount Ave. in Downers Grove owned by Christopher MacKenna.
"The choice of colors is very personal to the homeowners but I try to help steer them in their choices," Feley said. "I advise them on what will be best for their particular house, adding color to the dentil molding ("teeth"), for instance, but not making it look like a circus tent.
"Usually these old homes haven't been painted in 20 years and the work is very tricky, so it takes a six-man crew about five or six weeks to complete, even working six days a week for 12 to 14 hours each," he continued.
"But, when you paint it right, a house really comes alive with this type of treatment," Feley said.
The Chicago Paint and Coatings Association is based in Schaumburg. For more information about this annual competition, visit www.chicagopaint.org.