Out Of The Archives:
San Francisco Victorians


Mail-Order Houses

Many of San Francisco’s beautiful old Victorians were actually built from prefabricated design plans with mail-order decorative features, giving many of the houses of that age a uniform look. They were really not much more than a modern tract-home or row houses without a front yard. Not original by any means, they were built from abundant local redwood, and were originally painted grey and black, to imitate the stone and brick houses of the eastern US.

The Victorians, or Painted Ladies as they have come to be called, were built between the years of 1850 and 1915 beginning when the first gold rush hit the area. Technology had made advances in the building trade, such as making mass produced nails and wood cut into 2×4 strips, readily available. The prefabricated bits of the houses were easily transported from the factories over the newly connected railroads. The large windows, that were now possible to have, let in streams of light from the front and back of the house. High ceilings gave a sense of space and a fireplace in every room assured heat. Houses were no longer mandated to be small, boxy and functional.

Although, they weren’t always popular. The high ceilings, narrow hallways, long staircases, and large windows made them drafty and sometimes hard to access. Sometimes the staircases reaching to the front door from the street are one or two stories high, while to reach the top floor inside, one must climb one or two more stories up a steep and narrow staircase. Add to that the hill you just climbed to reach the house! Friends curse each other forever for having to help move in or out of one.

Between the two world wars and the 1960’s, many of the houses were stuccoed over, faced with aluminum siding, and not recognized as a commodity of the city. Many of San Francisco’s Victorians are still hidden in this state today and you can pick them out as you ride by them on MUNI. In the 1960s and 70s, when faced with the threat of mass development and razing blocks and blocks of Victorians, such groups as the The Victorian Alliance of San Francisco helped to save many of them and the Victorians made a comeback.

During the 60s, most of the city’s bohemian hippie types started their San Francisco experience in one of these (then) inexpensive homes or apartments. The Haight was, and is still, home to many of the city’s Victorian buildings. They are now increasingly being appreciated, restored, and loved back to their original condition.

Over the years, individual owners have added not only their own decorative touches, but their own sense of color, to make their beautiful houses distinctive. Current color schemes can range from all white to pastels, from bright, gaudy, acid-trip influenced colors to sophisticated earthy tones, sometimes with touches of gold accenting the gingerbread. San Francisco residents take pride in their Victorians and some know no limits when it comes to restoration.

Types of San Francisco Victorians

There are three main styles of San Francisco Victorian architecture, although in later years there were many houses that had attributes from more than one style and sometimes all three.

Queen Anne: The overall shape of the house is asymmetrical, they have a steep gabled roof, shingled insets, slanted bay windows, and often have a turret or tower. Flourishes include lots of gingerbread, spindles, ornate cornices, brackets, and lead or stained glass windows.

Stick/Eastlake: This style includes square bay windows which let in more light than slanted bays, flat roof lines and freestyle decorations, turned, square, or round columns, false-fronts to make them look taller, and are reminiscent of the furniture of Charles Eastlake.

Italianate: Italianate was influenced by the architecture of Renaissance Italy with flat roof lines, corniced eaves, angled bay windows and Corinthian columned porches. Their interior design had heavily molded, yet graceful door frames and wainscoting that complemented the contemporary Victorian furniture styles.

Other styles represented in San Francisco, in smaller numbers, are Greek Revival, Gothic and Tudor. Happy house hunting!

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