By Lee Foster
(Author’s note: I am updating the 52 chapters in my book Northern California History Weekends: 52 Adventures in History for a new release. This article is one of the chapters.)
In spite of the Great Quake and Fire of 1906, which destroyed 28,000 buildings, impressive pockets of San Francisco’s Victorian architecture survived. They can be enjoyed today, if you know where to find them. The 14,000 structures that remained were mainly west of Van Ness Avenue.
The Historic Story
Driving past these Victorians can amount to a pleasant outing. Allow time for an occasional stop. If you plan a picnic lunch, Alamo Square park would be a fitting place to enjoy it.
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, pipe-stem columns flanking the front door, and flat crowns over the doors and windows. Queen Anne, patterned after a style popular in England in the 1860s, is marked by rounded corners, hooded domes, and the use of shingles for siding. Stick-Eastlake is similar to Italianate, but from a later period, mainly the 1880s, and is noted for chamfered corners on pillars, incised decoration, and horseshoe arches.
Some owners of Victorians take special pride in preserving and presenting them. The care involves upkeep as well as painting décor. The original paint colors for Victorians were often not subdued. The term “Painted Ladies” is often used to describe San Francisco’s Victorians, and the nuance of a slight exhibitionist flare in the appearance of these Victorians is apt.
The word Victorian honors the memory of Britain’s Queen Victoria, recalling architecturally-popular buildings from her long reign (1837-1901). Some Victorians were designed as pre-fabs and shipped around the Horn from New England after being ordered from catalogs.
Start in San Francisco at the corner of Franklin and California. Make this drive and you’ll see the best of the Victorians.
Get a good San Francisco map, paper or digital, and proceed as follows. The directions are precise, due to the one-way streets.
From Franklin and California, turn north on Franklin, left on Pacific, left on Scott, left on Clay, right on Steiner, right on Sacramento, left on Divisadero, left on Golden Gate, right on Scott, skirting Alamo Square (and perhaps pausing here for a picnic), turning left on Hayes, then left on Steiner, left on McAllister, right on Divisadero, right on Bush, and left on Laguna to Union. With a map, all the turns will be logical.
The Victorians that remain are not in some orderly place. The Great Fire skipped around and took houses at random, depending on where winds blew the embers. The city water system was disabled, so there was no weapon to stop the fire, except dynamite. Some houses were dynamited to impede the path of the fire, creating a blown-up space to save a neighboring structure. Displaced citizens camped out in Golden Gate Park because the roofs over their heads were gone.
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 exteriors of a few Victorians, your next question might be: what Victorian can the Public see from the inside, hopefully with a museum-like authenticity?
You can tour the lovely Haas-Lilienthal House, 2007 Franklin Street, built in 1886. This exuberant and classic Queen Anne building, designed by architect Peter Schmidt, has gables, bay windows, and turret towers. The interior boasts much of its original furniture and artifacts, with mahogany walls, marble hearths, and fine tapestries. The family lived in this house until 1972, leaving a display of family photos in the downstairs supper room.
The organization behind all this nurturing of historic architecture is San Francisco Heritage, www.sfheritage.com. Check their website for details on house interior tours and walking tours that celebrate the Victorians in the neighborhood.
Other prominent Victorians not to miss for an outside look would be the Spreckels Mansion, 2080 Washington, and 2090 Jackson Street, known as the Whittier Mansion. Streets adjacent to Lafayette Square offer many examples of Victorians.
At 1000 California Street stands the James Flood Mansion, built of stone in 1886 by the Comstock lode silver millionaire. 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. Now it 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, as the area around the Flood mansion is called, must have had a remarkable appearance in that great period before the Quake and Fire of 1906. Nob Hill hosted the grand houses of the “Big Four” directors of the Central Pacific Railroad. They were Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington. To this select group of structures were added the palaces of the “Silver Kings” of Nevada’s Comstock Lode, James G. Fair and James C. Flood. “Nob” was shorthand for the word “nabob,” a somewhat sarcastic British and American term for the newly wealthy, the high fallutin’ folks of the time.
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.
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/.
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. 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 http://www.sanfrancisco.travel/.
San Francisco figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.