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Those glorious Victorians. Gaudy, whimsical, and thoroughly charming, `painted ladies' are making a comeback

A ``painted lady'' - in case you couldn't guess - is a Victorian house painted in an array of exuberant colors. San Francisco is full of them, but they can be found in numerous other cities around the country as well. They have been termed ``beautiful,'' ``gaudy,'' ``whimsical,'' ``highly eclectic,'' and even ``life confirming.'' Authors Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen, who moved from New York to San Francisco 15 years ago, were so delighted with the painted Victorians that they have made them the subject of two equally colorful books.

The first, called ``Painted Ladies: San Francisco's Resplendent Victorians,'' was published by E.P. Dutton in 1978 and is now in its 12th printing. To the authors' surprise, more than half of the 110,000 copies sold have been to people across the country.

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``Owners or would-be buyers of Victorian houses bought the book in order to give themselves courage,'' Mr. Larsen said during a recent interview in New York. ``They used the book as validation that it was OK to paint the houses in such a bright and bold manner.''

San Francisco, the authors explain, is a unique architectural museum. Its 16,000 redwood Victorians constitute one of the world's architectural treasures.

Actually, 48,000 Victorian houses were built in San Francisco during the 65 years between the Gold Rush period and 1915, but thousands were destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Originally the houses were painted in loud tones of red, yellow, chocolate, orange, and blue, as well as olive green, terra cotta, maroon, mustard, and brown.

Historian Charles Caldwell Dobie once described San Francisco's Victorian houses, with their mingled motifs of Baroque, Corinthian, Gothic, Byzantine, and Georgian ornamentation, as ``an outbreak of architectural lunacy.'' But he couldn't deny their charm.

What Ms. Pomada describes as ``misguided modernization'' stripped many survivors of the period of all their Victorian detail and character, and either covered them with asbestos shingles or smothered them with stucco.

Many that retained their gingerbread trim, their towers, balconies, and cupolas, were later dulled by the conventional use of white, gray, or pale pastel paint.

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Then came the psychedelic '60s and a newfound courage to paint the old Victorian houses in the colors of the day. Although there were public outcries, says Pomada, the ``metamorphosis resulting from decorative house painting took hold, and Victorians took on new life and began to emerge as resplendent `painted ladies.'''

One house alone was painted a dazzling combination of navy blue, pale yellow, gold, silver, maroon, saddle brown, gold gilt, and light blue!

What started as a lark soon became a local, and then a national, trend. Several major paint companies picked up on what those adventurous 1960s and 1970s artists and painters launched and have developed it further.

Gussying up Victorians zapped new life into them, the authors contend, and probably saved many of them from demolition or further deterioration. ``By painting Victorian homes with extraordinary attention to details and in every color that hand, mind, and eye can conceive, San Francisco's Colorist Movement became a unique form of self-expression,'' they write.

The Colorist Movement, they say, not only revitalized many old San Francisco neighborhoods, but gave rise to a whole corps of professional ``paint designers,'' skilled painters and renovation craftsmen.

San Francisco has inspired a surge of similar interest across the country and is credited with helping to spark a national color revolution in the painting of vintage or historic houses. New collections of Victorian-style furnishings, wallpapers, carpets, and accessories have also followed in the wake of this popular movement.

Now, nine years later, comes a sequel to that first book, this one titled ``Daughters of Painted Ladies,'' also published by E.P. Dutton ($15.95 paperback, $29.95 hard cover).

This time the authors went far afield, traveling 36,000 miles to 41 states to scout out fabulous ``painted ladies'' of all sizes and shapes.

``We discovered that painted ladies generate interest wherever they are,'' the author said. ``And that their owners are eager to talk about them and show them.''

They looked at hundreds of houses, but chose 143 to feature in the new book. Photographer Douglas Keister followed after them to document their choices with an array of full-color pictures.

The launching of their second book has involved the authors in numerous personal appearances and lectures.

They laugh now when telling about being invited to appear and show slides of their ``painted ladies'' at one organization's ``Historical-Hysterical'' program. They were billed as the hysterical portion.

More seriously, an exhibition they put together of 30 photographs of leading ``painted ladies'' is now at the Oakland Museum in California and will travel later to the Center for Fine Arts in Miami. It will also be available to university museums and historical societies.

Since Victorian houses exist in many parts of the world, including New Zealand and Australia, the authors suggest that their next book might take them on a worldwide chase and be called ``Distant Cousins of Painted Ladies.''

Another recent, and more technical, volume called ``Victorian Exterior Decoration: How to Paint Your Nineteenth-Century House,'' by Roger W. Moss, an expert on Victorian colors, and his wife, Gail Caskey Winkler, a design historian, has been published by Henry Holt & Co.

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