San Francisco’s Painted Ladies

In the era coinciding with the reign of Queen Victoria, San Francisco enjoyed great prosperity and growth. The city exploded with the 1849 Gold Rush, accelerated with the 1859 discovery of silver in Nevada’s Comstock Lode, and continued to develop exponentially for the rest of the 19th century.

Victorian Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park

Tremendous wealth derived from the mines fueled a building boom throughout the city. The newly-rich built elaborate structures and many magnificent mansions in the fashionable designs of the Victorian era. In San Francisco, over 50,000 Victorian homes were built in three progressive architectural styles.

Three Italianate Style Homes, 2022-2064 Pine Street, Lower Pacific Heights District

The earliest Victorian style in San Francisco, Italianate, was derived from medieval Italian villas and farmhouses. They are elegant but fairly simple rectangular structures. We learned to identify them by their low-pitched roofs, overhanging eaves, tall narrow windows, elaborate door frames, and columned entryways.

Stick-Eastlake Victorian, 2022 California Street, Pacific Heights District

From the Italianate, the Stick-Eastlake style evolved with the addition of linear board strips (“stickwork”) on the exterior walls to mimic exposed half-timbered frames. Since it was a transitional style, pure examples are rare. Whenever we passed a true Stick-Eastlake Victorian, we stopped dead in our tracks to admire this exquisite style.

Haas-Lilienthal House, Queen Anne Victorian, 2007 Franklin Street, Pacific Heights District

The final and most flamboyant style of the era was the Queen Anne Victorian. These extravagant homes remain the epitome of San Francisco’s Victorian style. Characteristically, they feature asymmetric exterior elevations, embellished front-facing gables, three-sided bay windows, rich ornamentation, and lacy decorative spindlework.

Victorian Dining Room, Haas-Lilienthal House

Inside, the Victorian floorplans were as fancy as the exteriors. On a tour of the Haas-Lilianthal house, we observed turrets, verandas, statement chandeliers, ornate molding, and stained-glass windows. Instead of open concept floorplans and great rooms popular in modern homes, each room in a Victorian home was sectioned off for a specific function.

Grateful Dead House (during 1967 Summer of Love), Haight-Ashbury District

Just five years after the end of the Victorian era, the great 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed 80% of San Francisco’s structures, including most of its fir- and redwood-framed Victorians. A relatively unscathed area of the city was the Haight-Ashbury District, where some of the best and most complete examples of Victorian architecture still exist.

Queen Anne Victorian, Haight Street and Masonic Avenue, Haight-Ashbury District

During the 1950s and 1960s, Haight-Ashbury was an economically depressed area of the city. Given the cheap rents, the beatniks and then the hippies took refuge in the District’s many vacant Victorians. By the 1967 Summer of Love, a new expressive generation of San Franciscans had moved in.

Vivid Victorian, San Jose Avenue and 24th Street, Mission District

About this time, homeowners and artists began experimenting with bright color schemes on Victorian exteriors, especially in the Haight-Ashbury District. Representing individualism and self-expression, the colorist movement embellished the Victorian homes that ultimately became an iconic feature of San Francisco and its culture.

Waller Street Painted Ladies, 1300-1328 Waller Street, Haight-Ashbury District

Nowadays, the remaining 10,000 Victorian homes in San Francisco are highly sought-after and most are impeccably maintained. On our neighborhood walks, we found superb examples of Italianate, Stick-Eastlake, and Queen Anne Victorians. These relics of the city’s late 19th century prosperity, often dressed in polychrome coats fit for a queen, now stand regally as San Francisco’s Painted Ladies.

“Postcard Row” and Alamo Square Park, 710-720 Steiner Street, Fillmore District

12 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Painted Ladies

    • For sure, Neil. I thought it was interesting that it was the low rents in the Haight that attracted the unemployed beats and hippies to the neighborhood. The flower children that flocked to San Francisco for the Summer of Love could practice their communal lifestyle in the large vacant Victorians. Today, Haight-Ashbury is running on hippie fumes. We saw a few psychedelically painted store fronts and some modern bohemians on the street corners. I suppose the original hippies are now living in golf communities in Florida and Arizona.

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    • So true, Marty. Those six Queen Annes are San Francisco’s most famous Victorians. Locals and well-informed tourists make their ways up the Hayes Street hill for the iconic view. The grassy hillside of Alamo Square Park overlooking the skyline is a great place to sit on a blanket and people-watch with a bottle of California wine and a loaf of San Francisco sourdough. Cheers!

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  1. I’ve always thought that San Fransisco has some of the most beautiful architecture around, but I never realized that there were different types of Victorian houses. (I always learn something from you posts, thank you!) They’re all gorgeous, but I think I like the Stick-Eastlake version the best. And it’s so sad to think of all the houses that were lost in the fire!

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    • The Stick-Eastlake style is my favorite too, Ann. They could call it the “Goldilocks Victorian”, not simple like the Italiante and not wildly elaborate like Queen Anne. Of course, only a few remain after the 1906 earthquake and fire, which was a seminal event in San Francisco history. The Stick-Eastlake Victorians that endure are true architectural treasures.

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  2. A very informative post. I love period homes and these ones are beautiful. Such a shame about the earthquake and fires destroying so many beautiful properties, but I am glad that some have survived. San Francisco is such a great city.

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    • Thanks, Gilda. It may come as a surprise to you, considering the abundance and antiquity of English architectural examples, but the Victorians are the oldest structures in San Francisco (besides the mission, presidio, and a few indigenous structures). Before the 1849 Gold Rush, only about 1,000 people lived in San Francisco. When the city boomed, its builders adopted the prevailing style of the times, which was Victorian. We are lucky that some survived and are preserved for all to admire.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Phil & Michaela. Postcard Row is one of San Francisco’s iconic viewpoints. Unless you use black-and-white photography, it is hard to imagine these six colorful Queen Anne Victorians in their original drab gray complexion. The colorist movement of the 1960s, originally criticized for its ostentation, transformed these six famous Victorians and thousands more into works of art. One home owner we spoke with said it takes their painting contractor three months to paint their Queen Anne home.

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