The Westboro Baptist Church's neighborhood got a splash of color Tuesday morning. Aaron Jackson, the founder of non-profit Planting Peace and the owner of the two-bedroom, one-bath house at 1200 Southwest Orleans Street, directly across the street from the WBC, had his home painted in a gay pride rainbow theme Tuesday. And thanks to an all-day torrent of media attention, it could be the most famous home in America at the moment.
A team of four painters started the colored stripes on the house shorty at 7:30 a.m. After about an hour and a half, drivers stopped at the intersection to stare. Jackson said they normally stop, but today curious motorists were looking at Jackson's house, not the church.
Jackson and a couple of Planting Peace partners have been living in the home for about two months. The organization has traditionally focused on causes like caring for orphans and deworming children in impoverished countries. Jackson, from Destin, Florida, decided that GLBT equality would be the next area of focus for his group. The home, dubbed Equality House, will serve as a volunteer center and help the group promote GLBT rights in Kansas and throughout the country.
Ida Terry, 79, lives across Southwest 12th Street from the house. She said her ex-husband was in the army, so she detests the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting military funerals.
"I can't stand them [WBC members]," she said, while picking up a newspaper in her driveway. And she approved of the house's new paint job.
"I think this is great," Terry said. "I noticed it this morning, and I couldn't quit looking at it. I love it." But, she had one minor criticism for the location of a couple of the color layers: "The green that goes across there should be below the yellow," she said.
Becky Thompson pulled her car over to watch the painters work. She heard about the home improvement project on a local radio morning show and drove over for a look and to offer encouragement to the crew. She said Topekans need to vocally support GLBT community members and offer a counterbalance to the WBC.
"I think it's awesome," Thompson said. "They need more supporters."
Thompson added that she has a personal history with the Phelps family. "I went to school with all those kids. And, it's really sad, because they're great," she said. But as soon as conversation shifts to gay rights or religion, she said, "It's glossy eyes stares, monotone voice. And if that's not brainwashed, I don't know what is."
A little before noon, snow started to fall, slowing the painting process.
"It was supposed to be warm and sunny today," Jackson reminded his supporters as they began to look worried. Mike McKessor, the owner of the company painting the house, assured Jackson it's just some flurries, and it would pass.
"I'm from Florida, so tell me what flurries means?" Jackson replied. The snow and sleet mix kept falling for more than an hour, but the painters had already made good progress and were almost finished applying a second coat.
While the paint was beginning to dry on the outside of the house, the inside was a chaotic PR operation. By mid-morning, Jackson and his Planting Peace team had done interviews with Gawker, Topeka's WIBW-TV, Jackson's hometown paper The Destin Log, and Huffington Post.
Planting Peace partners gathered in the living room to monitor the house's growing fame online, and Jackson, 31, sequestered himself in his bedroom for series of lengthy phone interviews, even as local reporters continued to pull up outside. He emerged after one phone interview, looking a bit confused about who he just spoke to.
"Wow, that was awesome!" he said. "That was, uh, what's the lady, she does the reporting for CNN? Candy Crowley." Then the he understood what media heights his house hitting. "She's the one who moderated the [presidential] debate!"
Jackson walked back into his bedroom for another interview, starting the conversation with, "Hi, somebody at this number called me like five times."
A few minutes later, Jackson wandered back into the makeshift operations center in the living room, and told his team that NPR wants to do a story about the house. Planting Peace member Davis Hammet responds, "The New York TImes wants images they can use."
Then somebody tells Jackson he doesn't look outwardly excited about the growing number of national media requests.
"Just trying to stay focused," he said quietly.
"This is the new normal right?" Hammet added.