A Matter Of Aesthetic Standards A Brighter Look Is Meeting Resistance In Chestnut Hill.

Posted: December 06, 1997

Artists Michelle and Barry Burton had barely opened their new craft shop on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill on Nov. 15 when the aesthetics committee came knocking at their bright yellow door. It seems the Burtons' sunflower yellow and fantasy blue exterior clashed with the committee's guidelines for a conservative muted palette.

Myrna Pope, who heads the committee, handed Michelle Burton a Finneran & Haley brochure showing the Authentic Colors of Historic Philadelphia, as approved by the National Park Service, and strongly suggested repainting.

Burton said she was stunned.

``Aesthetics committee? There's an aesthetics committee?'' asked Burton, 30, whose brightly hand-painted quilted wall hangings are priced from $100 to $700.

In addition to Michelle's wall hangings, clay pieces and wearable art, the shop, called MellonHead, features wrought-iron tables and benches made by Barry Burton, 37.

The Burtons - he from Cherry Hill, she from small-town Connecticut - are not the only shop owners who have been visited by the aesthetics committee, and there is no evidence they are being singled out. Still, they said they wonder if the displeasure of the committee has more to do with the color of their skin - the Burtons are African American - than the colors on their walls.

Michelle Burton grew up in Stonington, Conn. - ``a carbon copy of Chestnut Hill,'' where hers was one of only two black families in three small surrounding towns. Racism is subtle, she said, and it differs from a stodgy aversion to change.

``It's an undertone,'' Michelle Burton said. ``People don't have to say it word for word, but you feel it.''

Pope says she can understand the Burtons' reaction because, after all, there are only two or three African American business owners on the avenue and, ``I know it's not easy being the minority in any community. I feel the same way when I go to Africa.

``But the one thing I can categorically state is that this is not racially motivated,'' Pope said in a telephone interview. ``We are truly color-blind.''

A fixture in Chestnut Hill since the 1960s, the aesthetics committee has no legal authority. It answers to a conglomerate of the local Business Association, Community Association and Historical Society and contains members of each group. Pressure is just about the committee's only tool, Pope said, and even that is not always effective.

When the Staples chain opened a store on the avenue in 1993, O'Donnell's Stationery, in business since 1954, felt the pinch. It was switch or sink, so Hank O'Donnell - who is white - turned part of his property into a toy store and hired a design firm with a national reputation to do the exterior.

The resulting O'Doodle's is far brighter and more attention-getting than the Burtons' MellonHead, two blocks south. The blue awning on O'Doodle's is three-dimensional and adorned with a train done in shades of pink, orange, yellow, green and blue.

Pope said she was especially disappointed with O'Doodle's because O'Donnell was on the aesthetics committee when it adopted conservative guidelines for exterior paint and signs in 1992.

``The O'Donnell family is one of the patriarchal families of Chestnut Hill,'' Pope said. ``And you expect more from people like that.''

O'Donnell was not surprised by that. ``This being Chestnut Hill, I knew we'd get some heat. But I'm a big boy,'' said O'Donnell, who is now pushing for changes in the guidelines. They were right for a while but wrong in the more cutthroat retail market, he said. Historic colors have been done all over the country.

The combination of the splashy O'Doodle's exterior and the Burtons' paint job has captured local attention. In a recent issue of the Chestnut Hill Local, one resident suggested that whoever painted MellonHead should be ``run out of town.'' Another wrote that ``O'Doodle's is O'Dorable!''

The juxtaposition of those letters fed Michelle Burton's fear that some form of racism was present. Pope told the Burtons the committee had not encouraged the letter writers and did not sanction those opinions.

Still, the Burtons say they are worried about the future of their lease. O'Donnell owns his building, Michelle Burton pointed out, but as a renter, she is more vulnerable to the pressure Pope said the aesthetics committee would put on the landlord.

And Michelle Burton said she feared she would need a letter of recommendation from the committee to get a city permit to erect an exterior sign. Department of Licenses and Inspections officials say that kind of letter is nice but not necessary.

Pope insists the committee of 15 residents and business owners has Michelle Burton's best business interests at heart. No point in having a bright exterior if you're selling high-end art work.

``Bright neon colors,'' Pope said, ``are usually a sign that the economy is on the decline.''

The Burtons' color scheme ``works beautifully in the southern climates, but it doesn't work in the northern climates,'' Pope said.

``When you look at low-cost retail in various parts of the U.S., you tend to have very sharp colors - colors that you find in the Caribbean and in parts of Miami, and with that come low-end products,'' Pope said. ``In order to sell high-end retail products, it's best to choose a conservative palette.''

Kevin Vaughan, executive director of the city's Human Relations Commission, said that were the Burtons to file a complaint, his agency could investigate or refer it to other agencies.

``My concern is that the couple have already been stereotyped by some neighbors,'' he said. ``When one talks about colors of the Caribbean, that is hardly a veiled reference to the Hispanics and blacks who populate that region.''

O'Donnell said he would stand firm against the committee and recommended the same for the Burtons.

MellonHead needs its bright facade because of its location, in a former residence, O'Donnell said. The entrance is set back from the street by a garden and a porch.

``She needs to be able to say, hey - I'm not a house,'' O'Donnell said.

Michelle Burton says her color scheme was inspired by her personal palette as it has been reflected in her work for years - not by O'Doodle's. The color scheme, she said, ``has nothing to do with the Caribbean.''

Besides, Burton said, she chose a shade of blue that was already on the avenue - in the awning that shields the neighboring Night Kitchen Bakery and on the painted exteriors of two restaurants: Flying Fish and Under the Blue Moon.

Pope says that's different because the blue is only in the trim on those storefronts.

She promised the committee would not interfere with the Burtons' sign request - even though it does have guidelines about signs: Neon should only be used in icons, not lettering. And smaller is always better.

``The sign problem and the color problem are not connected,'' Pope said. ``We don't behave that badly.''

What if the Burtons refuse to change their palette?

The committee will simply go away, Pope said.

``We hope people will comply,'' she said. ``Without these kinds of controls, you'd get a terrible mess. But if you don't have teeth in your guidelines, you have to recognize that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and you just go on.''

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