Victorians at Alamo Square with the modern San Francisco skyline in the background

San Francisco’s Victorians: The Legacy that Survived the 1906 Quake and Fire

Author’s note: This article on San Francisco’s Victorians is a fitting introduction to Northern California history. I re-shot this classic photo to reflect the Salesforce building in the background. I also put this photo on the cover of my forthcoming book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. This book will be a new version of my earlier book Northern California History Weekends: 52 Adventures in History. I like the way the photo suggests history in its modern context, the “Painted Ladies” of Alamo Square with the modern skyline of San Francisco in the background. The photo also indicates that Northern California history starts in and is anchored by San Francisco.

By Lee Foster

Part of the beauty of San Francisco resides in neighborhood pockets of Victorian homes, which were built in the late 1800s.

In Brief

San Francisco’s Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 destroyed 28,000 buildings. Nevertheless, impressive pockets of Victorian architecture survived. The Victorians can be enjoyed today, if you know where to find them. Most of the 14,000 structures that remain are mainly west of Van Ness Avenue.

The Historic Story

A good way to see the Victorians is by driving slowly through various neighborhoods. Such a drive can amount to a pleasant outing. Allow time for an occasional stop. You might plan a picnic lunch. Alamo Square park would be a fitting place to enjoy the picnic.

Among Victorians, there were three main design styles–Italianate, Queen Anne, and Stick-Eastlake. Italianate, in vogue 1850-1870, has bay windows whose side windows slant inward.The style also features pipe-stem columns flanking the front door, and flat crowns over the doors and windows.

Another style, Queen Anne, patterned itself after a type popular in England in the 1860s. Queen Anne is marked by rounded corners, hooded domes, and the use of shingles for siding. Stick-Eastlake is similar to Italianate.

Later Victorians

However, some Victorians are from a later period, mainly the 1880s. They may have chamfered (grooved or beveled) corners on pillars, incised decoration, and horseshoe arches.

Many owners of Victorians take special pride in preserving and presenting their homes. They pay attention to regular upkeep as well as painting décor. The original Victorian colors were not subdued. The term “Painted Ladies” is often used to describe San Francisco’s Victorians, especially those around Alamo Square. So the nuance of a slightly gaudy exhibitionist flare in the appearance of these Victorians is apt.

The word Victorian honors the memory of Britain’s Queen Victoria. She had a long reign (1837-1901). Consequently, several styles of architecture were popular during that time.  It may be surprising to people today, but some Victorians were designed as pre-fabs. The parts were shipped around the Horn from New England after being ordered from catalogs.

Getting There

Start in San Francisco at the corner of Franklin and California. Make this drive and you’ll see the best of the Victorians. Don’t be alarmed if you drive a few blocks and don’t see any Victorians. Just keep watching, on both sides of the road. Victorians survived in pockets, escaping here and there the fires and the later pushes towards modernization. This drive will show you the best examples.

Get a good San Francisco map, paper or digital, and proceed as follows. The directions are precise, due to the one-way streets. I drove the route anew in 2019 to confirm that my earlier research was still accurate.

From Franklin and California, turn north on Franklin. Turn left on Pacific, left on Scott, left on Clay. Then turn right on Steiner, right on Sacramento, left on Divisadero. Turn left on Golden Gate, right on Scott, skirting Alamo Square. (Perhaps you will pause at the Square for a picnic.) Proceed turning left on Hayes, then left on Steiner. Take a left on McAllister, right on Divisadero, right on Bush. Continue and take a left on Laguna to Union. With a map, all the turns will be logical. All the way you will be passing some of the City’s best Painted Ladies.

Light on the Victorians

The light on the Victorians around Alamo Square will be loveliest after about 2 p.m. on a sunny day.

The Victorians that remain are not in an orderly fashion. The Great Fire of 1906 skipped around. Blazes took houses at random, depending on where winds blew the embers. At the time, the city water system was disabled. The firemen had no weapon to stop the fire, except dynamite. Thus, some houses were dynamited to impede the path of the fire. The explosions created blown-up spaces, which saved neighboring structures. Displaced citizens, with no roofs over their heads, camped out in Golden Gate Park.

Be Sure to See

You’ll want to linger at the mini-parks, such as Alamo Square, for a break during this drive.

After enjoying the Victorian exteriors, you might ask: Can I see the inside of a Victorian?

You can tour the lovely Haas-Lilienthal House (1886), located at 2007 Franklin Street. This exuberant and classic Queen Anne building was designed by architect Peter Schmidt. The house sports gables, bay windows, and turret towers. The interior boasts much of its original furniture and artifacts. Admire the mahogany walls, marble hearths, and fine tapestries. The family lived in this house until 1972. Don’t miss seeing a display of family photos in the downstairs supper room.

The Haas-Lilienthal House is part of San Francisco Heritage (www.sfheritage.org), an organization behind all this nurturing of historic architecture. Check their website for details on house interior tours and walking tours that celebrate the Victorians in the neighborhood.

Other Victorians

San Francisco offers many other prominent Victorians not to miss. For an outside look, stop at the Spreckels Mansion, 2080 Washington. Continue on to 2090 Jackson Street. This Victorian is known as the Whittier Mansion. Streets adjacent to Lafayette Square offer many other examples of Victorians.

The James Flood Mansion stands at 1000 California Street. Flood, a Comstock Lode silver millionaire, built the stone structure in 1886. Today the Flood Mansion on Nob Hill is the last of the great Victorian mansions from the baronial days of the mining and railroad kings. It now serves as the home of the Pacific Union Club. Other mansions in the neighborhood, built of wood, were swept away in the fires that followed the 1906 Quake.

Nob Hill, where the Flood mansion is sited, was a remarkable looking neighborhood. However, the Quake and Fire of 1906 destroyed that grandeur. Before the earthquake, Nob Hill hosted the grand houses of the “Big Four” directors of the Central Pacific Railroad. Those titans were Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington. The railroad barons welcomed the “Silver Kings” of Nevada’s Comstock Lode, James G. Fair and James C. Flood. “Nob” was shorthand for the word “nabob.” It was a sarcastic term for the newly wealthy, the high fallutin’ folks of the time.

Victorians at Alamo Square with the modern San Francisco skyline in the background
Victorians at Alamo Square with the modern San Francisco skyline in the background

The Victorian era also included some fads and fashions in house building. One such passion was the construction of eight-sided or “octagon” houses. Today you can still see some octagon houses that escaped the Quake and Fire. One good example is the Feusier Octagon House at 1067 Green Street, built in 1858.

Best Time of Year

Any time of the year is good for Victorian viewing. Summer, if you escape the fog, will have the sun high and light up the houses if you want to make some photos. Spring and autumn will likely have the clearest days. Winter sun will be low and the daylight hours less, and the rains more likely. Each time you see the Victorians, the scene will vary. Morning and afternoon lights will have a different effect. You can go back for multiple looks and be rewarded with new perspectives.

Lodging

Kitty corner from James Flood’s mansion on Nob Hill was the abode of Mark Hopkins, which was swept away in the Great Fire. On the site rose an elegant hotel, the Mark Hopkins, a fitting place to consider for this Victorian subject. From the Top of the Mark bar/lounge at the Mark Hopkins you can have a drink and gaze out at the City. The Mark Hopkins is at 999 California; 415-392-3434; http://www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com/.


Booking.com

Dining

One of the distinguished and definitely one of the oldest San Francisco restaurants is Tadich Grill, at 240 California Street; 415-391-1849; http://www.tadichgrill.com/. Tadich is known for its succulent, grilled seafood and career waiters, wearing white jackets and ties. Try the grilled Dungeness crab cakes with a chilled Wente Chardonnay. Some of the diners will tell you how their grandfathers once ate here. Tadich has been serving food since 1849 and claims to be one of the first 100 businesses in California.

For Further Information

The main entity encouraging San Francisco Travel is the San Francisco Travel Association at https://www.sftravel.com/. San Francisco Victorians are some of the main aspects of the city that they celebrate.