5 Things: Victorians in San Francisco

No other city is as famous for its Victorian-era homes as San Francisco.

"Victorian" doesn’t refer to one particular style, it refers to a time period, specifically the years from 1837 to 1901 when Queen Victoria reigned over the British empire.  During this 60+ year period, architectural styles evolved.  In San Francisco there are four distinctly different styles of “Victorians” plus a style commonly called Victorian that is technically “Edwardian,” built after 1906 when Victoria’s son Edward was on the throne.

Victorian homes were built with all the amenities and modern conveniences of their time – double parlors, gas or electric lights, and indoor plumbing.  Many Victorians have been modified to include garages, and updated kitchens and bathrooms.  Some have been gutted inside to create a modern open-concept floor plan. 

The elaborate paint schemes that have become a trademark of San Francisco Victorian homes are a fairly recent development.  Most Victorians were originally painted white or grey to mimic stone, or give them a “wedding cake” appearance.  In the 1970s a group of artists living on Steiner St. near Alamo Square painted their Stick Victorian in multiple bright colors, creating the city’s first “Painted Lady.” Now owners of Victorians often work with artists and color specialists who can use 16 to 20 colors to create custom paint schemes which can cost $50,000 or more. 

Today, over 13,000 Victorian-age structures remain in San Francisco, and many have been lovingly restored.   Here is a short guide to identifying the different types.  The dates listed are when the earliest examples of these styles began to appear.  

1. Flat fronts:   1850s

 Two early flat-front homes in the Castro.

Two early flat-front homes in the Castro.

From the 1850s through the 1860s, most houses in San Francisco were built from hand-cut lumber using basic carpentry tools.  The earliest houses have flat fronts and simple trim.  Some were constructed from pre-cut kits brought in by ship from the East.  Others were built from oak or redwood from the virgin forests once plentiful across the bay in Oakland and Marin. 

Look for: Flat fronts, simple trim, one or two story
Neighborhoods:  Scattered around in ones and twos

 1870 flat-front home on Guerrero.

1870 flat-front home on Guerrero.

2. Italianates – 1870s

 A row of 1880 Italianates built by TREA in the Mission.

A row of 1880 Italianates built by TREA in the Mission.

The opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought an increase in population. To accommodate the influx, builders like The Real Estate Associates (TREA) bought up whole blocks and built rows of small townhouses in the style of Italian villas.  The design was copied from stone townhouses being built around this time in Boston and New York.  Bay windows with slanted sides were added in front to provide more interior light.  Columns around the front door are topped with a tiny decorative “Juliet” balcony above.   Elaborate cornices often rise several feet above the actual roof.    Italianates were originally painted gray or white to look like stone.  Some even added square blocks along the edges called quoins (pronounced coins) which mimic stone construction. 

Look for: Bay windows with slanted sides, small decorative balconies held up by columns, large top cornices.
Neighborhoods: Mission, Western Addition

 Italianate with quoins that mimic stone edges, on Liberty St in the Mission.

Italianate with quoins that mimic stone edges, on Liberty St in the Mission.

3. San Francisco Stick –1880s

 Stick row houses on Laguna in the Western Addition.

Stick row houses on Laguna in the Western Addition.

In 1876, the first steam-powered woodworking tools were introduced at the Bicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  These tools made decorative trims more available and affordable.  Straight cuts were the fastest and easiest and soon machine-made “sticks” were combined to form elaborate patterns.   Bay window with right angles and lots of repetitive geometric trim in diamond, square and “donut” shapes are hallmarks of the San Francisco Stick style of Victorian.  Large contractors bought trim by the caseload and used the same trim patterns over and over.  Later, plaster ornamentation was added.  Decorative gables were often added above the front door, over windows and on the roofline. 

Look for:  Squared off bay windows, repetitive geometric trim, gables
Neighborhoods:  Mission, Castro, Noe Valley, Pacific Heights

 Geometric details on a San Francisco Stick home in the Castro.

Geometric details on a San Francisco Stick home in the Castro.

4. Queen Anne -- 1890

 Queen Anne row on Waller in the Haight.

Queen Anne row on Waller in the Haight.

Perhaps the most beautiful of all Victorians are the Queen Annes.   They came into style in the 1890s and were some of the largest and most expensive of the San Francisco Victorians.  Queen Annes are defined by excess with layers of decorative elements like  patterned shingles, rounded bays, stained glass windows, balconies and even towers.  The intricate details and plaster decorations on these home seem to be one-of-a-kind but were almost always machine-made and picked from a catalog.   There are close to 6,000 Queen Anne houses remaining in San Francisco, more than any other type of Victorian.  Most were built in rows of four or six or more.   The rarest type of Victorian is the single, free-standing Queen Anne with a tower – less than 400 of these remain. 

Look for: Decorative shingle siding, stained glass, functional balconies and gables.
Neighborhoods:  Haight Ashbury, Castro, Noe Valley

 A Queen Anne with stained glass and a tower at Page and Ashbury.

A Queen Anne with stained glass and a tower at Page and Ashbury.

5. Edwardians -- After 1906

 Edwardian  with Romeo and Juliet fire escape in North Beach.

Edwardian  with Romeo and Juliet fire escape in North Beach.

The destruction of many part of San Francisco 1906 Earthquake and Fire caused a severe housing shortage.  In the years after the disaster, hundreds of apartment houses were built in the Edwardian style, with slanted or squared-sided bay windows, a wide top cornice with simple trim, and often a rounded turret at the corner.  These were sometimes called Romeo and Juliet apartments because most units were one bedroom --perfect for a couple -- and many had iron fire-escape balconies between the two sets of bay windows.   By the 1930s, Edwardians had begun to seem old-fashioned and many were updated with Art Deco details.

Look for:  Three or four-story apartment buildings, two sets of bay windows, rounded corner turret. 
Neighborhoods:  North Beach, Inner Mission

 Art Deco Edwardian in North Beach.

Art Deco Edwardian in North Beach.

Download City Explorer's Victorians of Lafayette Park tour and take a walk around one of the best preserved Victorian neighborhoods in San Francisco.  More tours of Victorians in Haight Ashbury and the Mission District are coming soon.