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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.