This post appears as part of the SFhotlist San Francisco Architecture Series. We’re showcasing the best and most beautiful of San Francisco architecture. Let us know if there is an architectural style you’d like covered.

Part of what makes San Francisco so beautiful is the diversity of its architecture. The oldest architecture in San Francisco, besides the Native American housing that was designed more for mobility than endurance and the adobe buildings brought to us in part by European missionaries, is Victorian architecture. And while we love a nice row of intact Victorians, no San Franciscan is surprised by the sight of a Victorian nestled up against anything from Mission to Modern. Like the city we love, our architecture is diverse and sometimes even quirky.

San Franciscans, for example, popularized the term “painted lady,” and there are still many examples of very colorfully (some would say questionably so) painted homes. The name painted ladies was first used to describe these beautiful old homes by writers Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen in their 1978 book Painted Ladies – San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians and it has, of course, been with us ever since.

A Little Bit of History

Victorians got their start in San Francisco with the South Park Development (see below), built in 1852, which riffed on the London row house style.

Victorian architecture is, in the off chance you didn’t know, named after Queen Victoria of England. Queen Victoria, also the self-titled Empress of India, had the longest reign of any English monarch, clocking in 63 years and 7 months. Her death, in 1901, heralded (sounds queenly, right?) the official end of the Victorian era of architecture and was succeeded by Edwardians (named after her son, Eddie. That was a joke.).

According to our friend, Wikipedia:

About 48,000 houses in the Victorian and Edwardian styles were built in San Francisco between 1849 and 1915, and many were painted in bright colors. As one newspaper critic noted in 1885, “…red, yellow, chocolate, orange, everything that is loud is in fashion…if the upper stories are not of red or blue… they are painted up into uncouth panels of yellow and brown…” While many of the mansions of Nob Hill were destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, thousands of the mass-produced, more modest houses survived in the western and southern neighborhoods of the city.

One Pacific Heights home that escaped the destruction is the Haas-Lilienthal House, now a museum. I think it’s interesting to learn some of the reasons, including the 1906 earthquake, our many hills, trees (see redwoods, below), and (famously) fire, that San Francisco looks the way it does today. And, of course, many of the houses considered modest in 1906 aren’t considered so modest today!

Enough history. Let’s talk about the actual architecture.

Victorian Architecture Styles

Victorian architecture is made up of three basic styles called Italianate, Eastlake (a.k.a. Stick), and Queen Anne. Although it doesn’t make it into most architecture books, locals also call certain Victorians “shotgun Victorians” because of their long, narrow halls.

Something else you may not know is that San Francisco has more Victorians than anywhere else in the world, partly because the available redwood (sorry, redwoods) timber was soft and easy to machine carve into all of the crazy shapes we love so much today. Distinctive to San Francisco is how tall and thin so many of our Victorians are, made that way so that they could fit tightly together on then new city blocks.

Let’s break it down:


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Italianate Victorian

Just as there are three basic styles of San Francisco Victorians, there are three basic styles of Italianate Victorians. They are, in chronological order, flat front, slant front, and (my fave) freestanding Italianate villa.

Flat fronts have, wouldn’t you know it, flat fronts. They are also characterized by their tall false fronts, which lent them grandeur — and increased affordability. Slanted bays which feature, yes, bay windows, were introduced later, during the affluent 1870s. They have many of the same features as the flat fronts but, with the important improvements in automated woodworking, they are known for kicking off the “gingerbread” era of heavily decorated Victorians.

Freestanding Italianate villas were, of course, built only for the upper classes. One prime example (although to be fair it is also a mix of Eastlake and Carpenter Gothic) is the Nightingale House on Buchanan Street between Haight and Waller.


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Eastlake Style Victorian

Speaking of Eastlake, Victorians are known for detailed and prominent stick style woodwork installed in every direction on the exterior, including the diagonal. Although it may not seem like it because of all the embellishments, a “half-timbered” look, probably borrowed from ye olde England, also characterizes this style. Another, very obviously distinguishing detail, is the squared bay window.

Queen Anne

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Queen Anne C.A. Belden House

The Queen Anne style (1880 to 1901) represents the last and most flamboyant homes of the Victorian Era, characterized by multiple stories, asymmetrical architecture, columns, and even little faux (or sometimes real) outdoor spaces such as balconies. The Haas-Lilienthal House (above) is a prime example, while the South Van Ness Street Stone House reflects the transition from Eastlake to Queen Anne.

To be completely complete, there are many transitional styles of Victorian architecture to be found in San Francisco. You will hear talk of Carpenter Gothic, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, and probably more. Many San Francisco Victorians were added to over time and there aren’t many that are one pure style, and that’s part of what makes them interesting.

To sum it up:

  • Early Victorians, called Italianate, often flat fronted but also characterized by slanted bay windows, have the plainest architecture.
  • Eastlake style Victorians are characterized by richer woodwork detailing and square bay windows.
  • Queen Anne Victorians, the most richly decorated of all, are characterized by all the above and represent the Victorian last hurrah.

Now let’s talk about where to find these beautiful painted ladies.

Where to Go San Francisco Victorian Hunting

You’ll find, as I said, the birth place of the San Francisco Victorian in South Park. Although much of its original architecture is gone or altered, South Park has a complex and interesting history from its original swank to its chapter as one of San Francisco’s primary Japanese neighborhoods, to its heydey as ground zero of the dot.com revolution. Today, you’ll enjoy South Park Café (actually housed in an Edwardian, but I won’t tell) or Mexico au Parc (What?! They don’t have a website so you’ll have to Google it.) for healthy, fresh, and stylish Mexican food.

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Alamo Square, home to some of the most photographed Victorians of all time and the neighborhood with the second largest concentration of homes over 10,000 square feet, clocking in just after Pacific Heights.

The Haight, famous for the Summer of Love, is also home to a large number of Victorians and some of the most colorfully painted as well. Other Victorian rich neighborhoods include Bernal Heights, Noe Valley, Lower Haight, the Castro, Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, and the Mission District.

Many San Francisco neighborhoods have at least a few Victorians. The best thing to do is to wander the streets in your favorite neighborhoods and check out the ladies. I suggest San Francisco City Guides, a friendly nonprofit offering free (yup) walking tours of the city via passionate and knowledgeable volunteers. Or, if you’d like to be on your own while you scope out the ladies, pick up a copy of The Painted Ladies Revisited at one of San Francisco’s local independent bookstores, please!

Have fun with it!

If you, or someone you know, is interested in finding out more about Victorians, or how to buy one of your very own, let’s be in touch.


{Photo Credit: jjron)

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