SEATTLE — It’s hard to miss the enormous 20-foot-wide American flag on the side of Richard Ormbrek’s home. Comprised of around 180 tiles painted with scenes of Americana against a background of red and white stripes, the flag pops from the orange cedar shingles with traffic-stopping audacity.
This is actually the second major art project that Ormbrek has put on the house he shares with brother-in-law Bruce Edenso. The first, a traditional Haida Indian totem house design that covered the entire side of the home, was painted in 1975 and made the house something of a local landmark.
Many people know of one: that neighborhood house that’s quirky or dramatic or a bona fide art project.
But few have the inclination, or the guts, to turn their own home into “that house,” to view their property as a giant canvas waiting to be explored.
“We needed to paint our house anyway,” says Ormbrek. “And while we were mulling over the color, we decided to make our home look like a longhouse.”
Ormbrek’s late wife Judy, a Tlingit-Haida, picked the totem design, which the Ormbreks projected from atop a car across the street while their friend Steve Priestly painted in the lines.
Neighbors gaped as the house was transformed, but only one seemed to mind, fearing it would bring down property values. So far, it seems, the Totem House has neither driven down property values in one of Seattle’s hottest neighborhoods, nor affected the resale value of the home itself.
“I get offers every week to buy my home,” says Ormbrek. “Of course I’m not planning on selling the house; it’s a very special place.”
Keith Wong, an agent in San Gabriel, Calif., for the national real-estate brokerage firm Redfin says a home’s price and location are more important than aesthetics in tight markets.
“We educate our clients to look past cosmetics,” says Wong. “If a house has good bones, it has lots of potential.”
Wong recently took clients to see an unusual home in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and says the couple were turned off more by the noise from a nearby freeway than by the home’s eclectic design, which included a rainbow of exterior colors and a giant statue of an insect in the front yard.
For those considering a creative makeover to their home, remember it’s a fine line between special and tacky, Wong advises. And consider how long you’ll be staying there.
“If you’re planning on selling your home anytime soon, it’s best to stick to cosmetics and keep with the characteristics of the neighborhood architecturally,” he says.
Jay Pennington of New Orleans put a twist on this suggestion when he offered his yard to host a year-long musical art installation. The double lot he purchased in 2007 came with a dilapidated, roughly 250-year-old Creole cottage on the property, which Pennington wanted to use in a creative way befitting the spirit of New Orleans.
A DJ, performer and artist manager who also goes by the name Rusty Lazer, Pennington is steeped in the art world through his work as co-director of New Orleans Airlift, a not-for-profit organization that provides opportunities for artists. Pennington, along with Brooklyn-based street artist Swoon and New Orleans Airlift Co-director Delaney Martin, came up with the idea of a musical village made from the salvaged remains of the cottage.
After obtaining city permits, Martin and artist Taylor Lee Shepherd paired artists with builders to create a lot-size shantytown with nine shacks that wheezed, thrummed and plinked as fully functioning instruments.
The neighbors were almost universally supportive and took part in the project.
“It’s New Orleans. People love music here,” says Pennington. He said neighbors appreciated that the cottage wasn’t torn down and replaced with a new, out-of-character home.
“The area has a rhythm and spirit to it, and that was something we had to try and preserve,” he says.
He did draw the line at friends camping in his yard for Mardi Gras, insisting that they build a privacy fence to show respect for the neighbors. The fence was built in a day, wheat-pasted with a design by Swoon, and now a piece of it is part of the archival collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Performances of “The Music Box,” as the project was called, drew 15,000 visitors and a host of performers who played the instrumental buildings. It ended in May 2011 after four months of staggered performances. Most of it was dismantled and the pieces stored to be used in a permanent musical building.
Pennington still shares his property with the project’s art director, Eliza Zeitlin, who lives in the permanent structure she built for the project.
“My house will never be just my house again,” says Pennington. “But I love that.”
In this undated photo provided by courtesy of New Orleans Airlift, an unidentified child plays an instrumental house in The Music Box, a temporary community art project built in the yard of a private homeowner in New Orleans. The Music Box was phase one of the Dithyrambalina project--a permanent musical structure planned for New Orleans. (AP Photo/Courtesy New Orleans Airlift, Morgan Sasser)×
This April, 2013 photo shows a detail of a 20-foot-wide American flag on the side of Richard Ormbrek's home in Seattle. The flag is made up of around 180 individual hand-painted tiles depicting scenes of Americana. Ormbrek periodically rotates the tiles and replaces some with thematic scenes for various holidays. (AP Photo/Cedar Burnett)×
This April 2013 photo shows resident Richard Ormbrek standing beneath the doorway of his house, which was once known as "The Totem House" among local residents, for the enormous Tlingit Haida painting on the side of the home in Seattle. The totem archway is the last remaining vestige of the totem artwork. (AP Photo/Cedar Burnett)×
This undated photo provided by courtesy of New Orleans Airlift shows The Music Box, a temporary community art project built in the yard of a private homeowner in New Orleans. The Music Box was phase one of the Dithyrambalina project--a permanent musical structure planned for New Orleans. (AP Photo/Courtesy New Orleans Airlift, Melissa Stryker)×
Seattle resident Richard Ormbrek stands next to his house, which has been decorated with a 20-foot-wide American flag made up of 180 individually painted tiles.×
This April, 2013 photo shows Richard Ormbrek's house, decorated with a 20-foot wide American flag made up of 180 individually-painted tiles, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Cedar Burnett)×
This undated photo provided by courtesy of New Orleans Airlift, shows a detail of Brooklyn street artist, Swoon's "Thalassa" print wheat-pasted on a section of fence in New Orleans. The fence sits outside the yard of Jay Pennington, the associate curator of The Music Box, a temporary community art project in New Orleans. The Music Box was phase one of the Dithyrambalina project--a permanent musical structure planned for the city. AP Photo/Courtesy New Orleans Airlift, Jay Pennington)×