San Francisco is famous for its Victorians, the colorful and intricately ornamented homes lining the city's roller-coaster hills in postcard-worthy rows.
From the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square to the Seven Sisters in the Haight-Ashbury district, these houses date back more than 120 years, and are often adorned in elaborate paint schemes.
Standing in front of one of these masterpieces, it's easy to wonder who in the world had the patience and careful hand to paint that?
Chances are Nita Riccardi, the founder of Winning Colors, was involved. Since starting her business in 1995, Riccardi has painted 400 of the city's Victorians.
"It's a specialized painting," she says. "Your typical union painter wouldn't have a clue what to do. It's more like artist work. It's detailed and requires patience. We love these buildings ... we do. When we're done, it's beautiful for many years, and we get to appreciate it."
Riccardi first picked up a paint brush at age 23 in 1989 while living in Los Angeles, and honed her skills painting tract houses. To break out of the monotony of suburbia, she got her contractor's license and decided to start her own business.
"Someone told me I'd have better luck in San Francisco," she says.
Her first bid was a city project on the 90-room Altamont Hotel on Mission Street, a 1910 Edwardian that had been converted into the city's first single-room occupancy affordable-housing development.
"I had bid $60,000 to do the inside and outside," she says. "I got the job, because it was the lowest bid. I thought it was going to take three weeks to do the inside. It took me a year to complete. I did my whole apprenticeship on this building."
Riccardi wanted this particular job, because she thought painting the interior would be a breeze, but it turned out to be a huge prolonged headache that required moving all the tenants to one side of the building.
She hadn't even considered the intricacy of the exterior, because it was painted a solid color. But when she finally got to the outside, she quickly realized that she preferred the exterior work even though the city had decided on a complicated paint scheme with 15 colors.
"Outside, it was just me, and so I did it in three weeks," she says.
Riccardi is currently working on three projects, including neighboring buildings on Duboce Street. In between running around job sites, she answered a few questions.
How long does it take to paint a house and how much does a job cost?
Anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000. If I were to paint just the front of a Painted Lady on Alamo Square, it would take at least a month. That's a $40,000 job. The Henry Ohlhoff house, on the corner of Steiner and Fell streets, took about three months. That was a total restoration with new metal, all new wood, stripping down paint, new roof. That's a $200,000 project.
What has been your biggest project so far?
400 Duboce by the N Judah line. It's the largest wooden structure west of the Mississippi. It has like 90 units and it was an exterior job. Took about three to four months. It was one of the Victorians still standing after the earthquake.
Who are all the team members involved in painting a Victorian?
Depending on the size, we could have anywhere from four to 10 painters, but we also have metal workers, colorists, ornamental plasterers, carpenters, painters, designers, historians and environmental specialists for lead safety.
Is lead safety a big deal?
A lot of people don't realize what's involved in terms of the lead safety, with the containment and the respirators for workers and sending them for medical evaluations, monitoring their blood levels and all of that. It's very complex and we're responsible as a contractor for our workers. I have a full-time safety officer, Layla Luna. It is a full-time job. We're on-site doing air monitoring. We're making sure our work practices are safe. We're buying HEPA vacuums. We're not out there torch burning Victorians without any concern for health and safety like they used to do.
It sounds like you're doing a lot of supervising these days. Do you still paint?
I do about 25 percent of the painting. I do a lot of the detail work and the gold leaf.
How many colors for a typical Victorian?
Usually it's anywhere from seven to 12 colors. A more monochromatic color scheme might be five to seven.
What's trending in terms of colors right now?
Monochromatic schemes, different shades of gray or all one color like black or gray. I think gray is kind of passé.
What are your favorite colors?
I like colors that flow. I like warm colors. I like anything that makes me happy, that makes me feel good. Colors that are nice to look at. I've always loved gold leaf. Even a monochromatic scheme with gold leaf is pretty.
How long does a paint job last?
About 10 years if it's wood. On a north-facing facade, you can get away with 15 years because it doesn't get as much sun. Paint on stucco and concrete will last longer.
How many coats do you apply in a typical paint job?
If you strip it all the way down, you have to build it back up and that might be five coats. Two coats of primer and three finish coats.
Has a client ever hated the color after you finished the paint job and asked you to redo it?
That has never happened. I make sure to do sampling properly. If they say, "Oh I like this color," I'm not just going to buy the paint. I'm going to paint a large section and we go stand across the street and look at it. Sometimes, we might spend a week or two just sampling.
How can you tell whether a Victorian's paint job has been done well?
The colors should be even and rich, and not streaky. There should be no bubbling, cracking or checking. Nails should not be rusty. They should have screws, and siding should be screwed in tightly. Vertical joints should be sealed. It should have horizontal joints. These should be open to allow it to breathe. The windows should be properly glazed.
Do you live in a Victorian?
I do. But since I rent and I don't own it, it's painted almost the same color as the neighbor's house, which is orange. It's the color of the San Francisco Giants. I definitely like orange when I go to the Giants games. I don't like orange for houses. Maybe for a door.
It's one of the oldest homes in the city. It's on Duboce next to the Buddhist temple. I wish I owned the building I live in.