Rookwood Red, Sash Green: Painting and Restoring Houses as an Art Form

The Jarvis House, built in 1888, in Riverside, CA | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Rookwood Red. Sash Green. Bordeaux. A blue that is not azure, not sky -- but something mixed specially by Vedder hands.

Take a look today while you drive around, wherever you live, at the not-lost art of housepainting. Yes -- the way it's practiced by Vedder Restoration Painting in Riverside and Corona and Redlands, where 28 colors might be applied to a Victorian house after hours of planning and swatches.

My brother Jeff worked for Chuck and Gary Vedder for most of his life, and because he has been gone for eleven years now, my daughters and I have taken great joy in being able to drive around and look at his still-vivid detail work on houses all over the area. When they were small, my girls used to gaze out the window while we were going somewhere and say, "Is that an Uncle Jeff house?" Even then, they could tell by the colors.

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Sash green paint peeling on my house. | Photo: Douglas McCullohMy brother loved the colors. But my girls also used to say, "Is that the house where Uncle Jeff fell off the roof?" Along with the art of paint, we can't forget the backbreaking work of mixing paint, climbing ladders to third stories, holding a brush when it's 104 degrees outside and the hand has to be steady enough to cover just the tiny ball in a porch spindle on a second-story widow's walk.

Right. That's art. Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo lying on his back on a scaffold -- but there's Gary Vedder, climbing a ladder today at my house and carefully replacing a 102-year-old redwood shingle that has finally splintered. We love our old houses, and we should remember that few people are still willing to make them into portraits of beauty.

The Wait House, built in 1888, in Riverside, CA | Photo: Douglas McCullohAll over America, you can find homes built from 1880-1920, Victorian and then Craftsman, single story like my old farmhouse or elaborate three-story castles with turrets and gables and widow's walks. And I have no hesitation in saying that the homes in Riverside, Redlands, and Corona painted by Vedder are among the nation's jewels.

Chuck Vedder came to Riverside as so many young men did -- he spent seven years in the Air Force, was stationed at March Air Base, and then, at 25, settled here. He didn't want to go back to Pennsylvania, and his neighbor was a house painter who taught Chuck how the jobs went -- but Chuck wanted art. He told me, "My mother died, and I thought, if it can all be taken away in a minute, I want to do something more with my life." He'd been painting model homes, but he "wanted to make a statement with paint."

A perfect way to describe what he and his brother Gary have done for thirty years. Chuck told me about the Dr. Moss color chart, which was made by a man who researched paint colors on American historic homes all over the nation and published the chart in the early 1980s. That's where those wonderful shades came from -- Sash Green is a distinctive creamy shade that is not forest, not pastel, and it is on my shingles. Rookwood Red is not something you see on a car -- it is perfect for window trim.

Chuck moved onto our street when we were teenagers, started his own painting business in 1977, and my brother Jeff started working for him in 1980, when Jeff was sixteen. Gary Vedder came from Pennsylvania when he was 18, and the three of them, with a changing crew, worked together for decades. Gary took over the business in 1992. The brothers told me last week that they've probably averaged 15-20 houses in all these thirty years, so they've painted and restored about 600 homes. That doesn't mean just new color -- that means reglazing windows, replacing shingles, building new trim, restoring the tiny parts of décor that make a house into art.

And they both laughed about Jeff. My brother was famous for his "cutting," the detail work that no one wants to do. He had the steadiest hand and eye, and for whatever reason, he could paint faster and with more precision than anyone. "I'd always be playing catch-up to your brother when we were cutting," Gary said. "I used to play this game with him when we were doing windows," Chuck said. "We'd start in the middle and go opposite ways, and I kept telling him I'd done ten, and really I'd done five, and at the end of the day, he'd done twice as much as me."

Detail of The Waite House. | Photo: Douglas McCullohCertain houses still display paint my brother's hands put there. The Waite House, on 1st and Mulberry Streets in Riverside, was painted by the Vedders in 1983, Chuck's first really big job. There are 28 colors, including the tiny circles of Chinese Red my brother painted on the small medallions way up by the roofline. "We made our own tools to scrape shingles," Chuck told me. "We used spoons to get old paint out of the cracks, because they worked the best."

Look at the layers of paint on the gables and eaves. Look at the cornices, the brackets and corbels, the things for which many of us don't even know the names. Someone held a narrow brush steady and applied yellow, and red, and green, and blue, in a perfect line.

Detail of The Jarvis Hous. | Photo: Douglas McCullohAt 12th and Redwood, The Jarvis House, built in 1888 and owned by John T. Jarvis, Mayor of Riverside from 1926-1928, was painted by Gary, Chuck, and Jeff in 1986. I remember visiting them on that job -- another scary third-floor roof. Chuck talked about the custom shade of green he painted around the front window to offset the darkness of the mauve his customer had chosen. "It was the perfect shade to complement those purples, and she didn't believe me until it was up there." Look at the red stripes of color on the tiniest indentations on the trim.

"Color gets its value from whatever light is around it, and whatever other colors are placed next to it," Chuck said reflectively at my kitchen table. He is retired. His brother Gary was outside the window, sanding and scraping with same dedication as he has for years, taking the old shingles down to smoothness. He applied Sash Green and Rookwood Red to my house 21 years ago, and most of it still looked great. That's Vedder Restoration -- not a rush job, but sweating and painstaking work, because Gary is an artist. His crew -- many of whom I've known for years, guys who worked with my brother and still joke about him -- moved around the hipped base of my old house.

"Remember when Jeff fell off the third floor roof?" I said to Gary the other day, and he laughed, his classic white painter pants dotted and slashed with colors.

"Yeah, he stepped on the wrong rung of the ladder, way up there, and I watched like it was slow motion, and he went down and hit the second floor roof and then he was about to roll off that one, too, and the fall would have been bad, and he rolled the other way, up against the water heater pipe. He just hung on and looked up at me."

My brother broke his toe. I remember it. But he kept climbing up that ladder, and so did Gary, and this week, Gary's propping the ladder up on my roof, and I was sad at first, until I thought about my brother saying, "Man, it's hot up here -- but look at what we can see." That's what we did, 21 years ago, sat on the roof one night and looked at the world so small below us, my brother's rough hands covered with dots of Rookwood Red.

Her new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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