Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Vivacious Victorians of San Francisco

One of the things I love about living in Lower Pacific Heights (I used to call the area “The Lower Pac”, but my fiancée says that’s like calling SF “Frisco” or Las Vegas “Vegas” – it’s cliché and hackneyed and sounds like I’m not from here, which I’m really not) is the Victorian houses. I love these old dwellings for their history and their beauty.

Like wise old men and women wallowing in the fog and basking in the sun, the Victorian mansions and homes of San Francisco are more like people than structures. Every time I wander through Pacific Heights, the famous Cow Hollow commercial district, the Western Addition, the Outer Mission or the Haight, I marvel at these architectural masterpieces. If these buildings could only talk, I always think to myself. What would they say? I’m sure it would be things like, “Look at my decorative features”, or “Why do tourists keep taking my picture?” “Please wash my windows” or “Man, am I expensive!”

Victorian architecture, known for its huge embellishments and overall complexity, initially became popular during the reign of Queen Victoria in England. Most of the Victorian houses in this country were constructed between the mid-1800’s until about 1915.

Every country and culture eventually got into the Victorian picture in San Francisco. The Italians brought their flamboyant architectural flourishes; the French used many of the elements we see in their majestic palaces; the Turkish offered their towers and the Russians brought the vodka.

Victorian homes and mansions are called “painted ladies”, because many of them are painted in multi-colors and feature incredible decorative embellishments. The most famous of these are the “painted ladies” of Alamo Square on Steiner Street. This row of ultra-famous Victorians is also referred to as “Postcard Row”. They have been used in numerous movies and TV shows throughout the years and attract thousands of tourists to their doorsteps.

Most Victorian homes and mansions were originally painted in earth tones, until after the Civil War when people began to paint their Victorians in as many as 4-5 different colors. For the most colorful or these, visit the ones along California Street.

The styles of Victorian houses can be put into several categories. The most prevalent are called the Italianate Victorians (A good example being the Sherman House in Pacific Heights); Gothic Revival (Ex.: The Westerfield House of Alamo Square, also known as the “Russian Embassy” – and home to one of the very first hippie communes in 1968); Queen Annes (characterized by steep roofs, shingled insets and slanted bay windows); the Stick/Eastlake style (Ex.: the Charles Dietle House at the corner of Page and Laguna); and the Second Empire Victorians (Built primarily between 1855 and 1885 and distinguished by their mansard roofs and multiple balconies).

San Francisco’s Victorians are like glimmering jewels set against the hillsides of this beautiful and amazing city. If you would like to go on a tour of these architectural gems, visit these web sites:; or

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