Columns 2003

The color of bird houses in Anchorage

I remember the first time I saw the “birdhouses” out here in south Anchorage. I’d just turned off of Minnesota and suddenly there they were. In a sea of beige and boring sat this amazing village of color adorning these somewhat oddly shaped houses.

My first reaction was to be somewhat startled and my second was to wonder how the neighbors were taking it.  I guess all the recent press coverage and letters to the editor about them has answered that question for me. 

I can’t say I’m surprised by the negative reaction.  In a town that seems to have adopted gray and beige as it’s official colors, blues, yellows and greens certainly stand out. More importantly, in a town that seems to have forgotten it’s Alaskan, these homes raise controversy.

Back in the early 70’s, a friend of mine was going through a great debate in her mind about whether to buy a house in Anchorage and concede that this had indeed become her home.  On my trips down to Anchorage, she and I would spend many hours in a car house hunting.  Nothing as formal as a real estate agent or anything. We’d just cruise neighborhoods to see what they were like and what kind of homes were there.

Being relatively fresh from a seaside town on the East Coast, my idea of home was either red brick or Cape Cod.  Either solid stone or solid gray with possibly a little blue trim thrown in. The idea that someone would actually paint their house a color seemed somewhat startling. And then I discovered how Alaskans kept their spirits up during the long, dark, cold winter.

They painted their houses in combinations of colors never conceived of in this universe till Alaskans slapped them on their sideboard. I saw black with purple, purple with pink, pink with red, red with green, and my all time favorite, baby poo yellow with light brown trim. Alaskans colored their homes as largely, wildly and creatively as they lived.

People thought nothing of painting an entire garage door in a psychedelic pattern usually only seen after dropping acid in Berkeley in the sixties. Some would have a relatively neutral colored home but their garage door would be painted black with orange trim. At first I thought they were people who just really liked Halloween. Then I realized that no, they just liked that color combination.

A dear friend of mine in Barrow, Marie, painted her house bright red after seeing how wonderfully colorful the houses were in Greenland when she went there for a meeting.  They brightened up the dark winter by making the exteriors of their houses colorful.  Marie has a large two-story house that for a long time defined the edge of town. As you drove across the dam road to Browerville, Marie’s house sat like a beacon at the end of the lagoon.  I always looked for it as I drove across the road and smiled when I saw it. It felt like a good friend was smiling across the water back at me.

So when I read all these complaints about the color scheme on the birdhouses, I think to myself that here in Anchorage we are forgetting what being Alaskan is all about. If you want a gray and tan community, neatly laid out with lawns, fences, barbecues and 2.5 children coming out of every door to catch the school bus in the morning, you could be living in the lower ‘48 without the added hassle of long, cold, dark winters.

The people buying these birdhouses are trying to get a foothold on the first rung of the ladder that leads to the American dream. The fact that their ladder is slightly brighter than someone else’s should not count against them in their efforts to climb it.

And by the way, I live in south Anchorage and my house is proudly painted Balmoral red. It looks great in a mantle of snow.  It makes giving cab drivers directions very easy.  And it gives me that feeling of uniqueness that most of us came to Alaska to experience.