Neighborhood Etiquette: When Personal Style Becomes Public

Neighborhood Etiquette: When Personal Style Becomes Public

Catrin Morris
Jul 31, 2012
Note: This is NOT the home in my story. This one's in the Shaw neighborhood in DC, where many houses are happily and intentionally painted bold colors. Via the Prince of Petworth.

Last week I got about five different texts and emails with one word: YELLOW. These were from friends who had just laid eyes on a jaw-dropping paint job being executed a few doors down from my house. Now, this is not your average yellow. It is a color that has its underpinnings in nature (mustard or bile, maybe) but with a technicolor tinge. Not quite neon or electric. Not quite retro. And certainly not historic. It's the kind of color that makes your face go all twisty, like you've eaten half a lime.

For a little context: I live in on a street of historic row houses in Washington DC. They were all designed and built by a famous local architect, Harry Wardman, but are by no means identical and uniform in style. Most are red brick or painted in neutral tones, with a few light yellows and faded blues. Until now, that is.

Needless to say, the neighborhood is rumbling with discontent. But not enough to be angry. And certainly not enough for any of us to actually say anything to the homeowner (and what would be the point anyway?). In the grand scheme of things, it's the definition of a "First World Problem." But the issue got us thinking.

I am torn. On the one hand, I love a dose of color, contrast and personality in a neighborhood. On the other hand, this particular paint job seems more like an overdose of color. Is this an aesthetic and subjective distinction only? Or is there some etiquette breach here? If you do something really bold (like paint a house an almost-neon color) should you at least talk it over with the neighbors? Or consider how your design choice may look among the other homes on the block? After all, exterior paint color does impact the overall appearance of a street, for better or worse.

But don't get me wrong. I am not advocating we live in some creepy, fascist planned community where you are barred from outwardly displaying any semblance of personal taste or character. I think variety is wonderful. So maybe it really does come down to a matter of taste. Most of my neighbors think this yellow home is really ugly. But how can we regulate based on matters so subjective? Are we saying that we encourage style and individualism — but only as long as we like said style? That seems unfair.

The fact that our neighborhood is a Historic District makes my disdain a little more justifiable. While preservation codes do not officially govern exterior paint colors, I think it is safe to say that a putrid yellow home does not jibe with the 1910 architecture.

Do you think our neighbor acted un-neighborly? Or does he owe his neighbors no explanation, warning or apology? At what point does personal style infringe on public aesthetics?

I wish I had the answers to these questions. In the meantime, my life has become easier in one way: When giving directions to my house I can just say, "we are a few doors down from the Yellow House."

(Image: Prince of Petworth)

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